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)”