They warned me he was coming. “We’re giving you Akim. (Not his real name.) He just got out of Juvie. He was in the middle school wing here at Oak Park. He’s 15, violent and ID.” (Intellectually Disabled, what we used to call Retarded, and which our Assistant Principal still did.) “He has a history of assaulting staff. Read his file. He’ll be here tomorrow. Newtown kid.” (Code word: he’s Black.)
Akim was my first inkling of a new facet in the social control of high school behavior kids by the Sarasota County Schools. Previously, students with behavior issues and labeled as Special Needs had been warehoused at Sarasota’s Oak Park School, tagged as Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed. All those simmering frangible personalities had for years been kept in a separate wing in self-contained classrooms under the care of teachers with psychological issues often as profound as their own.
Oak Park School’s high school wing was an object of benign neglect by Oak Park’s parade of principals, whose unchanging prime directive was to avoid bad publicity and above all, lawsuits. It was a pressure cooker that often exploded. (The Christmas riot one year lives in memory, mine and others. A former student: “Remember the Christmas riot? Wasn’t that the bomb?”)
In 2011, The Sarasota County School District abandoned the Oak Park containment model and shipped the high schoolers off to two high schools, Riverview High School and North Port High School, where they were kept in separate modules.
Unwittingly endorsing educational apartheid, Sarasota’s Superintend of Schools had groused in the Sarasota Herald Tribune that Florida's Dept. of Education was “nuancing” those two high schools’ FCAT scores by averaging the results of their behavior students’ tests with those of all the other students in their respective schools. She didn’t object to the inclusion of International Baccalaureate students’ scores.
Some kids though, were deemed too disruptive for the even the high schools’ cloistered behavior clusters. But they could only be kept at Oak Park School if they were cognitively impaired Special Ed students. Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed on an IEP was no longer the ticket to Oak Park, but Intellectually Disabled (ID) was.
It was the start of the 2012-13 school year at Oak Park. I had a self-contained class of 7 high-school aged kids, all genuinely ID, cognitively disabled since birth. They were with me because of their behaviors, such as flash anger, a history of assault, sexual prevision and suicide attempts. Among them was inevitably, Mikey, a hulking 17 year-old and Oak Park School’s reigning serial sex offender, assigned to me the previous year as part of administration’s cover-up of his frolic in a locked staff bathroom with a mute, ID little blond boy. My students’ average age was 17 and their automated county mandated curriculum on the order of “See Spot Run.” Akim with his 70 IQ should fit right in, I thought.
He came boiling off his bus, which he had to himself, blowing past me as I tried to introduce myself. He stormed about the campus cursing up a storm. I followed. He was Black, as advertised and scowling with rage. Oak Park School has a sprawling campus on Lake Sarasota—it takes a good ten minutes to walk its perimeter, which Akim and I did, with me trailing in his wake. Our Response Team, no friends of mine, lay low. Hunger won in the end—Akim calmed down enough to follow me to the cafeteria to claim a typically meager OP breakfast of grits and cowboy bread, and to follow me back to the classroom, where he ate in sullen silence.
Self-contained classes are just that—you’re in the same room together all day, staff and kids, except for meals, PE, and one period of Specials, such as art or music. If you’ve the most violent and disturbed kids in the school, in whatever guise, administrators rarely visit. The school’s Response Team restores order selectively, enjoying a Praetorian Guard autonomy: they’re slow to respond or to respond at all to repeated calls for help from beleaguered teachers on the outs with themselves or the school’s administrators. Having over the years been a catalyst in the deletion of some of the more brutish response team members, their support had become nonexistent.
After a consolidated math period, during which Akim quietly took a reading test, we had a socialization period. Students played board or card games. Akim shrugged off a few offers to join in. “You play chess?” he asked me as I finished posting attendance.
My squire and former student would occasionally play me without his queen, beating me handily. But Squire has a 150 IQ and thinks three moves ahead.
Akim checkmated me in about four minutes. Returning to his desk with a derisive smirk, he took Hunger Games from his backpack, opened it to a bookmarked page near the middle and began reading.
“Do you like Hunger Games?” I asked.
“It’s ok,” he said, not looking up.
“I read it last year with my standard diploma students. What do you think of Katniss?”
“She’s gonna bring it down.”
“Bring what down?”
“The games, the killing, all that shit.”
“I won’t be a spoiler,” I said, hiding my surprise at how well Akim read for someone with a 70 IQ. “For Reading, do you want to do the Bluford series?” I asked, naming a well-intentioned reading series targeted at struggling, lower socioeconomic tier readers. Akim wouldn’t be doing the See Spot Run stuff with us. The Blufords are inner city morality plays set in a Black and Hispanic neighborhood rife with drugs and replete with struggling single parent families. Good triumphs over evil, often with the unwavering help of a concerned teacher and a nice cop. The Blufords are of course, fiction.
“I read them all in Juvie,” he said, not looking up. Not unusual.
“How long were you in Juvie?”
“Isn’t that in there?” he asked, nodding toward the large lump of brown file folders banded together on my desk.
“I usually just read the test scores and grades. Too much angry handwriting elsewhere.”
“Ok,” he almost smiled. “A year.”
Never ask why. “So, what do you want to read? Give me a clue.”
“I can read anything. I ain’t a retard,” he said sullenly.
“No one said you were.”
“Yeah, they did. It’s in there,” he said, glancing again at his files. “Wouldn’t be here if it didn’t say that.”
After school, I trundled down to the former high school wing and its book closets. The standard diploma high schoolers were gone, but their texts had stayed. Both closets were empty. “They’re converting them to laundry rooms,” said the janitor. “To teach the students how to do laundry.” Ok.
I found the librarian. She told me all the high school texts been remaindered for recycling.
I read some of Akim’s file. He’d been a foster child most of his life, only recently reunited with his father. His 70 IQ had come from psychometric profile done while he was a patient in a psychiatric hospital several years before. Oak Park was supposed to retest him, but hadn’t. Then he was sent to Juvie. He was long overdue for retesting. As his tests were out of date and hence out of compliance with federal law, it seemed it would be a simple matter of getting parental approval and scheduling the tests with the Oak Park’s part-time educational psychologist.
Going home that night, I unearthed a few surviving copies of a literature anthology I’d used last year, and next day gave him a copy. “They’re all short stories, poetry and essays. How about this one?” I asked, handing him the book, opened to Tolstoy’s “Master and Man.”
“Want to go over the vocab first?”
“I’m good,” he said, starting to read.
He finished in about 30 minutes, and answered the multiple choice and short answer questions that went with it, getting a 95%. Wouldn’t talk about it with me, but his answers showed an understanding of Tolstoy’s recurring theme, that happiness in life is living for others.
As the District Office’s rep for Sarasota’s Empress of ESE would later note, it wasn’t a standard diploma high school text. My “So, that means he’s intellectually disabled?” was ignored.
The next day I called Akim’s Dad and got the OK to begin the paperwork to have his son tested and, I was sure, freed of his Intellectually Disabled shackles. Dad was a tough, no-nonsense guy, but he seemed to genuinely care for Akim. And Akim obviously respected his father, and feared his wrath.
Backed by a valid IQ score and other authentic psychometrics, Akim could escape Oak Park School for Riverview High. With a stable home life and an appropriate curriculum, he could begin acquiring the sense of self-esteem needed to quell the anger seething inside him for at being a retard. Silly me.
I’d no inkling of the educratic outrage I was about to unleash. By trying to help Akim, I was unwittingly challenging Sarasota County’s long standing policy of depraved indifference towards its behavior students, threatening deployment of its latest tactic for segregating them from other students, and from an education.
I couldn’t have know that Akim’s life was about to be shattered just as it was finally coming together.