By Gloria Partida
On November 28th 13 year old Max Benson, who had a diagnosis of autism, died while being held in a prone restraint at the non public school he attended. These sterile facts tell little about the more important humanistic picture of Max. On December 20th I attended a vigil for Max held outside of the Davis school board meeting, just before that evening’s meeting started. Speaker after speaker told of a loving, caring, boy who loved dogs, rocks, nature and his family. Anyone that has had a 13 year old or been a 13 year old understands that 13 is a thunderbolt of intensity. 13 is goofy jokes, loud unregulated voices, unbridled impulses and lots of foot stomping. Autism is an amplifier of our humanity and in adolescence when we are bombarded with a slew of new emotions, curiosities and expectations, autism can make getting through a simple day unmanageable.
In 1984 when my son was nine months old he was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. Along with that diagnosis came a trajectory of expectations written through social norms meant to ease the navigation of non-*insert subgroup*typical people at large. Best to separate the other than face our bias. This approach worked for any sub-group in our society we were uncomfortable with. The suggestion to put my son “away,” to not expect he would meaningfully engage with the world was meant to make life easier for everyone.
The practice of balancing societal norms on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society is unsustainable and inevitably comes crashing down leaving us to scramble for ways to uphold whole new systems. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed this scramble reached critical mass all over the country. School districts especially were tasked with supporting students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. When we arrived in Davis in 1989 I had been advocating for my son to be mainstreamed. I did not want my son to take a 40 minute ride to the special ed school every morning when the neighborhood school where his siblings went was just down the street. I did not want him to be segregated from his community. When we did succeed in getting mainstream education in Davis we understood that not all students would be best served by this model. That some students needed to be in classrooms with more specialized support.
Having been a disability advocate for more than 30 years, I understand just how special specialized support is. For many children with special needs behavior management can be the biggest challenge to fully integrating into a community. Imagine parenting a 13 year old on their worst day almost every single day. Teachers that work in this area must be well trained and supported. Burnout is high and turnover great. Teachers that persevere are a godsend and too few and far between. I don’t know the details of what happened at the Guiding Hands school but I do know that avoiding this type of tragedy must be a top objective. It is time for us to take an honest look at our practices and ensure we are doing everything we can to keep all the children under our care safe and all teachers fully resourced.
This examination should begin by asking: what are the guidelines in our own school district for restraint? How is oversight managed by our school district for children placed outside of our system? What type of training is given to our teachers in de-escalation and physical intervention? How can we foster programs closer to home to give parents choices that are easier for us to oversee? When we advocated for mainstream education all those years ago, the prime motivation was to keep our children in their communities. When someone belongs to a community they are protected and cared for by everyone that is part of that community. Max belonged to Davis he should not have died so far from home.