By Rhonda Bodfield
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 05.28.2009
Five Tucson Unified School District employees were put on notice after an investigation revealed that a special-needs student at Sabino High School routinely was left restrained to a fence by his backpack from when the bus dropped him off for school to when teachers came to take him to class.
The bus monitor involved said the exceptional-education student, whose feet remained on the ground, was attached to the spoke of the fence so he wouldn't fall over or wander away while he waited for his escort.
Some teachers knew about the practice and documented their concerns in March by taking a photograph of the student restrained on the fence. The photo ended up in the assistant principal's office in early May, according to an e-mail from Principal Valerie Payne to district officials, in which she warned of the trouble it would cause if such a photo were to get out.
In a written explanation in the district's investigative file, monitor Thomas Giacoma noted that for most of the school year he had used the fence and nobody voiced disapproval, adding it was done in full sight of everyone at the bus bay, from teachers to bus drivers, supervisors and students.
"I would never intentionally do anything to a student that would give him discomfort or embarrass him in any way," Giacoma wrote in a letter of explanation to district officials. He added that the student never seemed distressed.
Giacoma said he stopped the restraint in March, when a teacher told him she was outraged that he would humiliate a student in such a manner and warned him that she would get him fired if she saw it again.
It wasn't clear in district records why the teachers didn't report their concerns to administration in March.
Payne was out of the office and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Two exceptional-education teachers and two teaching assistants received letters of direction in mid-May. The letters are not a form of discipline, said TUSD's interim chief human-resources officer, Nancy Woll, but serve as a warning that discipline could occur if the behavior didn't change. The bus monitor received a verbal warning.
Woll concluded that attaching the student to the fence violated a Governing Board policy requiring that staffers maintain a courteous and professional relationship with district students, parents, employees and patrons.
The failure of the Sabino staff members to speak up about their earlier concerns violated another policy requiring staff to report unprofessional conduct.
According to internal e-mails in the investigative file, the student's mother met with staff to help work out more appropriate interventions and appeared to be satisfied with the district's response. Neither the student nor his mother was identified in the records.
Advocates for the disabled said the restraint described in the probe isn't appropriate.
"The fundamental question to ask is, 'Do you want to be attached to the fence, with no means of escape?' And if the answer is no, then we don't have the right to do that to anybody else — and especially for someone who can't advocate for themselves," said Northern Arizona University professor Dan Davidson. He has a doctorate in behavioral disabilities and teaches positive behavior support to teachers who work with people with disabilities.
Davidson cautioned that while he didn't know the specifics of the Tucson case, "in general, it's my professional experience that many instances of restraint can be prevented with better training and support to the adults who are entrusted to teach and care for the students."
Sue Kroeger, director of the Disability Resources center at the University of Arizona and who teaches disability studies in the College of Education, said the restraint described in the investigation is "disrespectful, undignified and totally unacceptable."
Kroeger said she was less inclined to shake her finger than to see the incident as symptomatic of a larger problem — the stigmatizing of people with disabilities. "I think what's huge is how we frame disability in such a way that it would make that response seem OK," she said, adding that people should stop and ask themselves if their response would be the same if they were dealing with a person of color or a woman. "Faced with that difference, we act in ways we wouldn't act with anyone else."
As a mother and a professional who happens to be in a wheelchair, she said people need to reframe their perception of disability from a deficit to just one more variable along the human spectrum.
"This is what we get when we don't stop and think about how we're conceptualizing disability. If we look at it as a subhuman, abnormal condition, this is the behavior we'll get," she said.
"It's how we've been socialized, and it's not anything that's going to change overnight. We continue to improve, but we have a long way to go."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at email@example.com or at 806-7754.