Did Michigan teacher mistreat autistic boy? Video of incident sparks debate.

A lawyer for the boy’s mother says the teacher took the video and teased the boy in front of students. But the teacher’s defenders say she is loving and skilled and the video is being misinterpreted.

Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP
A kindergartner (front l.) points at letters as he sounds out the word 'van' while classmates hold up the letters for their classmate while the teacher helps students learn how to read Feb. 12, 2014 at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. A video made public this week that a Michigan teacher (not pictured) took and shared with the principal, other staff, and in her classroom, is sparking a debate.

A video made public this week is bringing attention to a dispute in Goodrich, Mich., over whether a teacher should be fired for her treatment of an autistic fifth-grader who was stuck in an awkward position in a chair.

A lawyer for the boy’s mother says the teacher took the video and teased the boy in front of students and other staff. But the teacher’s defenders – including some students and parents – say the short video is being misinterpreted and that the teacher is loving and skilled.

Disability rights advocates say harassment of disabled students goes underreported, along with even more extreme practices, such as secluding and isolating students. It indicates a troubling lack of knowledge on the part of some educators about how to handle the behaviors of students with special needs, they say.

“This is a national problem … and in Michigan there is no requirement that schools report such incidents,” says Mark McWilliams, a lawyer who oversees education work for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. in Lansing.

The boy, a student at Oaktree Elementary in Goodrich, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, which falls in the category of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that ASD affects about 1 out of every 88 children.

The video shows the boy with his arms and head stuck in the opening in the back of his chair, wiping his eyes while the teacher questions him about how he got stuck. While the maintenance crew is on their way to help, Principal Michael Ellis can be heard saying it’s “not an emergency in their book,” says the mother’s lawyer, Patrick Greenfelder.

When the incident took place in November, the teacher took the video on an aide’s cell phone and shared it with the principal, other staff, and in her classroom, Mr. Greenfelder said in the Detroit Free Press.

When an antibullying liaison at the school told the superintendent about the video, the superintendent gave the principal and the teacher the opportunity to resign or be fired, Greenfelder told the Free Press.

Principal Ellis resigned, but the teacher, Nicole McVey, hopes to keep her job. The school board voted this week to pursue procedures that could lead to her removal. She has representation from the local union.

“We don’t often see schools take that kind of action,” Mr. McWilliams says about the swift moves against the principal and the teacher. “They don’t do it lightly … [but] there should be a significant response to civil rights violations and mistreatment in schools.”

A survey of teachers in Maine suggests more can be done to improve teachers’ ability to work effectively with autistic students. In 2009, 66 percent of special educators and 83 percent of regular educators said their teacher education programs did not adequately prepare them to deal with the needs of students with ASD. Most also reported that in-service training was only moderately useful, reports the Maine Center for Community Inclusion & Disability Studies.

But the Goodrich case also shows that teachers can face a variety of views in the community when a question arises about how they handle a given situation.

One part of the video that is sparking outrage is when Ms. McVey asks the boy, “Do you want to be tasered?” Some parents at a recent board meeting offered an explanation to show that she wasn’t referring to what people might automatically imagine – such as a stun gun used by police. Instead, they said “taser” refers to poking or tickling a child in the ribs and making a buzzing sound, with the purpose of distracting him from a problematic behavior, reports the Grand Blanc View. These parents also said videos are often used for teachable moments with students who have ASD, because many respond well to visuals, the View reports.

But the boy’s mother wrote in a letter to Greenfelder, quoted in the Free Press: “I felt incredibly helpless watching my son sobbing on the screen.... He was pleading for help, and they just continued to watch him and almost taunt him with their lack of compassion.”

Based on the video clip publicly available, the boy doesn’t appear to be being teased or in terrible distress, but “every situation needs to be judged on the merits of what happened,” says Vincent Strully, CEO and founder of The New England Center for Children, a private school for students with autism. It is problematic, he says, that the teacher apparently didn’t realize such videos shouldn’t be circulated. Young teachers who have grown up with social media often don’t understand the need to protect students’ privacy, he says.

Monica Holloway, the mother of a boy with Asperger’s and author of a book about the family’s experience, says the teacher missed an opportunity to teach compassion. Instead, Ms. Holloway says, “she taught every child in that classroom how to be a bully.… If a teacher doesn’t understand Asperger’s, they shouldn’t be teaching.”

On the national level, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa recently introduced the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would restrict the use of seclusion and physical restraints in schools, offer grants to help states train educators, and give parents more rights to stop such practices.

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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