This is part two of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
The children in our schools today will be adults a lot longer than they will be children. Every parent has expectations for their child beyond their school years, and parents of special needs children don’t lower them because of a disability. Luanne Haygood is no different in that regard. Her expectations for her now 11 year old-son, John Benji, look beyond the formative years of his life. The five felony charges John Benji is facing are a direct threat to that vision.
Video Courtesy Topspin Content
John Benjamin Haygood being charged with a felony crime was initiated by his instructional aide “…to get the ball rolling to get his mother to realize he needs additional help.” The problem is that John Benji’s mother knew he needed help, that’s why she pursued special services for her son years ago. This support is evidenced in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as well as behavioral plans equipped with strategies to guide John Benji’s progress. Like any parent, Luanne Haygood expected the school to be equipped to meet his needs. It’s called ‘accountability’.
A month after John Benji’s arrest district officials were interviewed about the challenges of meeting the needs of autistic students. Both Renee Geeting, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services and Wendy Coker, Director of Exceptional Education for Okeechobee County Public Schools, acknowledge that educating autistic students is not a ‘cookie cutter’ approach. On the surface their assertions should bring comfort and assurance that the district is on target to support the needs of their clients and their staff.
The inability to pick up on social cues, social, emotional and behavioral issues were all cited as aspects of autism that the district is prepared to address by both district representatives. The team approach is a staple of functioning in meeting the needs of special education students. From the interview with Ms. Geeting and Ms. Coker, a team equipped with all of the resources to support John Benji were available as well as the proper attitudes and understandings necessary to support a child with special needs. Why then were they not used? Typically a student in distress has a prescribed set of responses by educators to address the observed targeted behavior(s). I know of no educational plan that requires law enforcement as an intervention measure.
One of the revelations of the accountability movement was the question of capacity. Do schools have the capacity to do what they set out to do? This could include skills, knowledge, experience or resources. The answers to those questions typically lead districts in identifying the need for training or other measures to increase capacity to achieve a targeted goal. The question of capacity was raised as it relates to John Benji by his school principal, Randy Weigum.
“It would be nice to have some higher level discussions about what is this expected tolerance level from the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) department and our capacity to handle them or options beyond our services.”
-Randy Weigum, Principal
After John Benji’s suspension a manifestation determination hearing was held to determine if his behavior was related to his identified disability as is required by law. It was in fact determined to be so. The rationale to pursue charges after this finding questions not only the capacity (knowledge) of the instructional assistant but that of the leadership that did not make the connection for this employee.
In the interview with Okeechobee News, district officials acknowledged access to The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), for support and technical assistance. The irony in this is that days after John Benji’s April 2017 arrest, the executive director of CARD, Dr. Jack Scott, described the arrest as “deplorable”. Aside from his description of the incident Dr. Scott also identified the Severe Emotion Disturbance Network which is sponsored by the Florida Department of Education, as an additional technical resource to the school. Given the stated resources available to the district, one would assume alternatives to an arrest of a 10 year-old now facing five felony charges, could have been averted.
The Shell Game
The district asserts that it was the aide’s decision to pursue charges and that is evidenced in his statement given to the district attorney’s office to withdraw charges after John Benji’s actual arrest. The superintendent, Ken Kenworthy, in an April 24, 2017 email to Florida House Representative Katie Edwards, affirms, “The principal was under the impression that the charges were dropped and was equally surprised that the warrant was going to be executed that day.” That statement is only partially true. Although the district did not initiate, encourage or purse charges, they were however aware of the existing ‘take and hold’ warrant issued by the district attorney. In a January 6, 2017 email to school and district staff, the principal inquired, “…if he shows up for an eval [evaluation] then he is arrested and he still doesn’t get an eval, or is he on home base so he cannot come to school to do the evaluation[?]”. The school resource officer also informed the principal that neither he nor the schools were required to inform the parent of the existing warrant. This diminishes the claim by the district that it was unaware of an impending arrest. The school and district may not have been aware of John Benji’s actual day of arrest, but their own communication clarifies they did know that he would be, they just didn’t know when or where.
Why Are We REALLY Here?
I learned from one of my mentors, a former state superintendent, to look beyond the problem you see for its cause in order to understand and resolve it. It’s a lesson that I often have to remind myself of when faced with emotional decisions. This lesson comes with one valuable leading question, “why?”.
To answer the question of how we got here a review of the timeline of events from October 2016 through April 2017 are key. When we first heard of John Benji’s arrest it seemed to come out of nowhere. The viral video led us all to an emotional yet warranted response. It isn’t until you look further into the timeline that one begins to ask what’s really going on. Here are some key events in the timeline to examine.
These events may seem innocuous in isolation or even when streamed together. It’s not until you examine the responses of the actors in this fiasco that eyebrows are raised. The communication from both the principal and superintendent open the question of motive and intent of allowing the arrest of John Benji to come into question.
In the same January 6, 2017 email, Principal Weigum explains his conversation with the instructional aide about dropping the charges. “ He has indicated that it is not what he really wants to do but at the same time we all need to determine when enough physical abuse warrants a different form of action, especially when he in turn is accused of child abuse.” So, here’s the question, did the instructional assistant pursue charges in retaliation for being accused of child abuse? If not, why wait five days later to press charges against a 10 year-old autistic child for which the assistant is trained to engage? Did the school reach its capacity to provide services to John Benji? Did the school exhaust all available resources including technical assistance to all member of John Benji’s team to meet his identified needs?
In response to John Benji’s arrest the superintendent emailed the school board disputing John Benji’s diagnosis of autism. “Mom claims he is autistic, but the files and IEP do not support her claim.” Ms. Haygood’s ‘claim’ was and is easily verified through district documents and his medical records, which are on district letterhead. Ms. Haygood’s ‘claim’ is verified in the very first sentence in a document specifying John Benji’s educational driven status. So, why are we really here?
Luanne Haygood has expectations for John Benji beyond his schooling years. In guiding John Benji to meet those expectations she, like all parents have an expectation of the school to assist in that goal. We use the term “special needs” to children with specific learning challenges for a reason. It applies not to their condition but to the effort required to help them reach their goals.
Blaming the patient for the organization's lack of capacity to apply the appropriate treatment is not the fault of the patient, particularly when the condition isn’t self- inflicted or induced.
With all of the available resources acknowledged by and available to the district, there should have been more directed interventions beyond waiting for an arrest which they knew was coming months before. All of the semantics about the ‘charges being dropped’ don’t belie the fact that an arrest of a 10 year-old took place and the district was aware of the take and hold warrant. A now 11 year-old has been out of school for over 14 months, facing 5 felony charges. Expectations are the foundation of accountability and disappointment is a measure of effort.