Oak Park School: The Retard (Part Four)

Sarasota County Schools: Making Social Junk

Akim Photo.jpg

Farewell Akim

I was in anguish. Akim was returning to Oak Park School to checkout before attending school in Manatee County.  How was I to explain to this devastated 15 year-old that after all our assurances and all he’d endured that he was still a retard?

Fortunately, a few others in the Sarasota Schools also loathed its clubby racism. Covert calls were made to Bayshore High School and assurances given that Akim’s new Manatee Schools’ IEP would be without the calumny of Intellectually Disabled. And so it was. And so I told Akim a few days later, when he came to check out of Oak Park School, his grandmother and case worker in tow. He seemed only mildly interested. The fight had gone out of him, replaced by a quiet sadness. He was distant throughout the brief meeting, almost numb, only showing interest at the end, when I gave him a farewell card and a gift. He thanked me with a parting hug and a smile. I never saw him again.

Bayshore High School placed him in mixed ESE-regular classes, and began helping him overcome his relatively minor language processing disability. He was soon on the football team and his Facebook page showed him with a very cute girl. He was even smiling.

Happily Ever After it was not. Akim’s untreated PTSD got the best of him, sending him to stand wide-eyed against the classroom’s back wall, terror-stricken.  His rages and outbursts returned, he skipped school and got into trouble on the streets. He did a stint in Juvie. Then the Empress’s worst fears were realized—too much for his grandmother, Akim was placed with a foster family in Sarasota. There was no escaping assigning him with his peers in the Behavior Module at Riverview High School. (The euphemism for the Behavior Module is Learning Community. Whatever learning goes on there, its primary mission is containment and social control.)

I first heard of Akim’s pending return to Sarasota when Riverview High School called Oak Park School, requesting his files. Despite the Empress’s unblinking assertion that Akim’s classroom work was a golden metric of his intelligence, Riverview had no interest in what he’d achieved with me, or his aptitudes or interests. Or his dead dad. Forewarned, they were keen on having his behavior history file, any criminal history data, and his behavior modification plan.

Behavior kids have behavior plans. They help alert teachers as kids’ behaviors. (Surprisingly, the ones written by Juvie staff are the best.) But recommendations as to behavioral modifications are usually ancient boilerplate, with “praise,” “desired activity,” and “edible reinforcer” being the major ones. Behavior plans have nothing to do with helping students: they exist to perpetuate school behavior staff positons, in which teachers with no grounding in the psychology, who are deemed best kept out of the classroom, write and rewrite behavior plans, spawning their own bureaucratic fiefdoms. (Oak Park School had a Behavior Teacher known as The Donut Lady, after her primary behavioral intervention technique, which she’d skillfully apply to cause maximum disruption to my class, a class she inherited after I left. Some wag suggested she arm herself with a lifetime’s supply of Krispy Kermes.) 

Akim at Sarasota’s Riverview High School

Akim had never been to Riverview High School. The one he arrived at was the new $120 million campus was symptomatic of the Sarasota’s School Board’s Edifice Complex, which in the past few years had driven the rebuilding or massive renovation of most of the county’s high schools. Some portions of those campuses could have been less expensively renovated, and one that was demolished was a classic of Modernist Architecture.

Part of the old Riverview High campus was designed by famed architect Paul Rudolph and exemplified the layback Sarasota School of Architecture, extolled worldwide for interweaving people, climate and terrain into a gentle, harmonious whole. Alas! just as harmonious Old Sarasota was deleted for lacking in pretention, so was its old Riverview High School: Despite worldwide pleas to incorporate its Rudolph-designed buildings into the new Riverview High School, they were bulldozed in 2009, replaced by an expanded student parking lot.

Among its entitled, Sarasota numbers a self-referring and self-satisfied web of architects and contractors with glitterati trophy wives, kids in Ivies, and yacht and country club memberships. Appearances aside, many suffer from a perpetual need for cash. Happily their friends on the Sarasota School Board are always there for them: for the $120 million they were paid to rebuild Riverview High School, they’d happily flatten the Parthenon and pave the Acropolis. Neither Akim nor Paul Rudolph stood a chance at the new Riverview.

The Riverview High School Akim reported to on Day One of his return to the Sarasota County Schools is a paean to fascist architecture. Mussolini might have commission it—it intimidates and depersonalizes through its size and stark angularity. Riverview’s sharp lines and unadorned vaulting cavernous spaces are the flipside of Rudolph’s gentle Modernism, subordinating individuality to the supremacy of the institution. It’s reflective of Sarasota’s classist school system and its ethos of self-satisfied mediocrity, which rewards conformity and stifles creativity and dissent.

Akim’s reception at Riverview High School was an enhancement of the standard Dropout Acceleration treatment Sarasota gives its unwanted behavior boys, black or white, when they’re unavoidably assigned where they’re not wanted. Slight-figured Akim was met in Riverview’s colossal Hall of the Mountain King lobby by a phalanx of school staff, the Empress’s Parrot, a school administrator and ESE staff, and the sheriff’s deputies assigned to the school, an unwelcoming entourage trailing him during his brief stay. His PTSD provided the basis for a self-fulfilling prophecy—he was easily provoked into a grand mal outburst before lunch, was suspended and never returned to Riverview.

Akim emailed me soon afterward, apologizing for “messing up.” Like it was his fault.  

His Facebook page is long abandoned, only the ghosts of his brief happiness at Bayshore High School remain. Just before I left Florida, I heard he’d slipped back again into Juvie, reclaimed by the System. Another Mission Accomplished for the Sarasota’s well-honed tools of racism and classism.

Special Education — A Tool of Sarasota’s Racial Segregation

African American students are 2.5 more likely to receive ESE services for mental retardation and emotional disturbance than students of all other racial and ethnic groups combined, reports The Association of Black Psychologists, dubbing this the “Echoes of Jim Crow,” and a “new 21st century manifestation of segregated schooling.”  

Special Education’s but one of the processes that’s long ensured Sarasota’s white schools stay reassuringly white, superficially tranquil and intellectually vacuous, factories for mediocrity producing an uncritical middle class, while its black students remain ghettoized.  Sarasota’s Empress of ESE and her ilk are racist communities’ well-paid conductors on an underground railway to hell, where institutions like Oak Park School serve as processing stations for students of the wrong color or class, who flow out of them as dysfunctional social junk, grist for the mill of Florida’s  booming criminal injustice system.

                                                                                       Social Junk, Sarasota County Schools

                                                                                       Social Junk, Sarasota County Schools

Oak Park School, Sarasota: Passing the Trash

This is the first of a few writings about my time as a Special Needs teacher in Sarasota, Florida. After eight years, I’ve a wealth of material to draw on, much of it only believable as fiction.   

I’ve retired from my brief teaching career. Well, actually, more fled a fatwa than retired. Surprised I made it that long, given the pathological culture of the school where I taught.  But then, needs will as needs must—I had a child to put through college and someone else’s kid to protect.

I taught at Oak Park School in Sarasota for eight years. I’m certified to teach a lot of subjects. Before that I designed databases, mostly at the Pentagon and Harvard. I also wrote and continue to write novels. (Slowly.) Try as I might, my daemon won’t let me finish my current writing project until I purge myself of Oak Park. Daemons are funny that way—they can hold your creativity hostage to closure.

Oak Park School is affluent Sarasota’s central Special Needs school, with students ranging in age from five to 22.  Its staff often vacillate between their desire to protect their students and their fear of their bosses’ ire, as the unflattering role of an Oak Park teacher in the murder of one of his students recently illustrated.

One of the dark facets of Oak Park School is its long use as a gulag for Sarasota County’s more disruptive students, recast as Special Needs kids and off-loaded by their regular schools. Teachers can easily provoke grand mal outbursts in emotionally fragile students. It greases the skids to propel the kid out of their class, and with the “Atta boy!” support of their principals, out of their schools, preferably before FCAT time, as such kids tend to lower class and school scores—a threat to job security, promotion and bonuses. Oak Park School with its exuberantly aggressive, bone-breaking Response Team, and its pliant sheriff’s deputies, has long been the place to which the Sarasota District schools pass their trash, in educrat parlance.

This Stalinesque process begins with consistently disruptive students being “diagnosed” as Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed (EBD) Special Needs students, often with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) thrown in.  (Interestingly, many of the symptoms of long term child abuse and ADHD are remarkably similar and easily misdiagnosed or willfully misconstrued without much professional risk to the psychologist.)

Effectively acronymed as EBD, the behavior kids are then sent down to Oak Park. It’s clear they need help getting their lives together. Equally clear is that the Sarasota School District’s priority for them is and always has been containment, control and invisibility, a mushroom management pedagogy. Despite a student population from usually poor and often stressed or dysfunctional homes, Oak Park School, at Title I school, has but one social worker for about 400 profoundly challenged kids, the same as Pine View School for the Gifted, Sarasota's quasipublic school for the quasigifted.

In eight ytears of teaching OP’s high school behavior kids, I had perhaps two in-the-flesh observations by an administrator, the last in 2009. Principals—they come and go—would walk past my classroom on their way to the clinic, prized for its early morning coffee. Oak Park School’s administrators are always in synch with the District’s priorities for Sarasota’s behavior students. None of them have ever had any credible experience with Special Ed students.

Oak Park’s high school behavior students are gone—shipped to isolated modules in two high schools in 2011—this after some harrowing bus incidents when the county, to save money, crammed the behavior kids onto the same buses as Oak Park’s genuinely handicapped. (The Sarasota School District lives in fear of lawsuits, and justly so.) The elementary and middle school behavior kids remain at Oak Park.

After their departure, I was assigned to teach the Intellectually Disabled high schoolers who were also Emotionally Handicapped and so unable to master even the watered down curriculum being taught them in the isolated Behavior modules of those two Sarasota’s high schools, Riverview High School and North Porth High School.

I thought little of it at the time. Kids are kids. It was to be my twilight tour, our youngest daughter having graduated college and pretty much on her own. Our eyes turned north and my wife and I looked forward to moving closer to our children and seeing Sarasota and Florida blessedly recede in our rearview mirror, social aberrations seen only again in nightmares.

I’d no inkling that the arrival of an allegedly Intellectually Disabled high schooler in my classroom would eventually end my years of nimbly championing for lost boys while deftly dodging administrator ire. Or that it would end with my being the trash that was passed. Morally, I had no choice but to take the field, so outrageous was the cruel lie used to traduce  a defenseless and emotionally vulnerable kid by Sarasota school central administrators, adults who were supposed to protect and educate him.

[Bear, our Chow Chow, is insisting upon her twilight walk along the Mohawk.]

Next Oak Park School posting: “The Retard (Part One)”