Taped to the wall of every classroom in PHS is a sign printed on pastel printer paper: “In this room we will not tolerate the use of any words or actions that put people down because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.” The district’s and the state’s commitment to fighting against harassment, intimidation, and bullying, or HIB, has been clear since New Jersey passed the anti-HIB laws in 2010 in an effort to make students as comfortable as possible both in and out of the classroom. The New Jersey Department of Education clarifies that HIB can occur in various forms, especially with regard to “mental, physical, or sensory disability.” Just as discrimination based on race, religion, or gender is taken very seriously, HIB with regard to disabilities is dealt with strictly by the state’s various school districts.
However, “An inconvenient child,” a piece published in Aeon Magazine by Princeton resident and university neuroscience professor Michael Graziano, paints a disturbingly different picture. Graziano’s son, currently a second grader at Riverside Elementary School, was diagnosed last year with apraxia. This is a developmental coordination disorder which manifested itself in his motor skill development and causes him to rock back and forth in class—partially a “self-soothing” mechanism to relieve his anxiety over his performance in school. Granted that the school in question could not and did not comment on the situation, the alleged treatment of Graziano’s son—who went to another elementary school in the Princeton Public Schools district prior to his second-grade move to Riverside—was nothing short of unacceptable.
Disregarding the counsel of several professionals, including a movement therapist, a psychotherapist, and a pediatrician, the school opened a sexual abuse investigation on the Graziano family, inferring that the allegedly sexual nature of the student’s movement stemmed from abuse at home. When the report denied that any abuse had occurred, the school, in Graziano’s words, “shifted tactics” to imply that his son was instigating all sexual behavior, denying his special needs by refusing to grant him a state-mandated 504 Plan for children with disabilities. Although the boy was suspended from the school, the Graziano family fared well in court, where the judge ordered that he be moved to Riverside and provided with a 504 Plan, citing the lack of evidence for the school’s claims.
Graziano’s article reveals an unsettling discrepancy between what Princeton Public Schools ostensibly works to achieve with respect to HIB and the way it treats its own students. Where the principal should have improved her student’s classroom experience as determined by state law, she vilified his parents and traumatized him; where the school should have heeded expert advice, it pursued the (temporarily) less-expensive, more bureaucratic route. These inappropriate actions force us to examine the faults of a community that could lead to similar behavior in a situation as such.
Perhaps part of the reason lies in the stigma attached to any sort of sign that hints at a disability. But the question also exposes an equally-troublesome problem: HIB can come not from other students but from educators and administrators as well. Graziano, in his account, makes no mention of discrimination by other students regarding his son’s behavior—all discrimination was on the part of the school administrators. It is shocking that the school didn’t consider the implications its investigation could have on the child, and that it failed to approach the Grazianos for any background information before taking action. Perhaps the administration, so result-oriented and focused on “safety” in the classroom, kept bulldozing forward because it feared admitting to a mistake even when the investigation proved detrimental to the child in question. Parents and children should be able to depend on the objectivity and good judgment of their school system—good judgment evidenced by decisions that are considerate of both the community and individual students.
To resolve this issue, education is imperative—educators and administrators in any community need to be better equipped to understand learning disabilities, so they can ensure that each child has a comfortable classroom experience; more tolerant faculty will also produce more tolerant students. Furthermore, school administrations have the responsibility of approaching every child equally. It is hypocritical for the very people promoting acceptance and protection against HIB to allow, and even instigate, the ostracism of a student. While in some cases disciplinary action is definitely necessary, it is a process that requires comprehensive investigation and an objective outlook; it cannot be marred by personal discrimination or bureaucratic dishonesty.