This is part one of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
Who in the hell arrests a 10 year old autistic child and charges him with a felony? That was the question many around the nation and world were asking last April when we all became aware of who Benjamin Haygood was. Benjy, as his mother Luanne calls him, is now an 11-year old special needs student in the Okeechobee Public School System. Four of the felonies Benjy is being charged with occurred between June 5, 2015 and September 10, 2015 with the fifth incident for which he is being charged occurring on or about October 27, 2016.
Almost a year after his arrest Benjy is now facing five, YES, FIVE felony counts for “battery on school board authority.” When this incident went viral we all assumed that common sense would prevail, but OH NO, the powers that be continued to pursue the highest level of criminal charges against a special needs child without stopping to ask themselves, ‘to what end?’.
Why Were Charges Presssed?
That’s the burning question. To what end? Maybe we can find the reason in a statement by one of the staff who initially pressed charges for assault against Benjy.
“I pressed charges in order to get the ball rolling to get his mother to realize he needs additional help.”
Yes, this is the reason one of the ‘professionals’ responsible for Benjy’s care gave for pressing charges which they eventually dropped against Benjy. We’ll come back to that later. So, one has to wonder, if the charges were presumably dropped by the staff member, why then is the district attorney pursuing five felony charges against an 11 year old autistic child? According to his mother, Luanne Haygood, Benjy is scheduled to be arraigned on these 5 felony charges on March 14, 2018. Let me say it for you, WTF?!
My outrage, as should be yours is that common sense and cooler heads, we should refer to it as leadership, hasn’t stepped in. No common sense rationale has been given for the proposed benefit of pursing these charges. The state prosecutor’s rationale is that Benjy has more than 50 other incidents of physically aggressive behavior at school. Here’s my question, what role does the district attorney’s office have in assessing the school’s response to Benjy’s behavior in relation to his disability? Even if there are mechanisms in place by the courts to do so, who presented and carried out the recommendation to purse the charges as a benefit to Benjy? Are the charges designed to help Benjy, or his mother as the originator of these charges stated in their withdrawl of charges statement?
I get it. Working with a special needs student who has a propensity for aggression can be difficult, even if he is only 10 years old. Hell, I had a nine year old special needs student attempt to stab me in the neck with a pencil. Had it not been for my alert P.E. teacher, I might not be stroking these keys right now. What we didn’t do was charge him with attempted murder. We knew who we were dealing with and most importantly, WHY. We knew that the issues we were seeing in school were also occurring at home and relied on our professional obligations to help the student and parent using our professional knowledge, skills and the resources available to do our duty. We weren’t perfect, but we didn’t give up and try to ‘teach him and mom and a lesson’.
This is the gap in understanding how we got here in the first place. We know that some children come to school needing help. Some come needing a band-aid, some need stitches and some require emergency surgery. As professionals that’s the framework that good educators work in. When it comes to servicing special needs students, their disability is the basis for every effort by first acknowledging it exists and working to minimize the impact on their lives and those around them. The school’s role in addressing Benjy’s needs is not to blame the patient. It’s supposed to uphold its professional duties and reconvene to assess their current efforts to meet the needs of the student. Apparently, they seem to feel they’ve exhausted their capacities and legal action is their only recourse <Insert Side Eye here>.
In reviewing the communication between school staff and officials at Benjy’s school, it’s apparent that there was a plan in place to service Benjy. However, there seems to be an assumption that the existing plan was the correct plan. Just because you agree to it, doesn’t mean it’s the best plan. In one instance district leaders even state that Benjy’s austism was a ‘claim’ by the parent as the district had no documentation of it. One more time, WTF?!
Some of these questions may appear flippant, but frankly, when you respond to a school matter in this manner, well, the actions themselves appear to be….flippant.
So There You Are!
When Luanne Haygood took Benjy to school for testing neither of them expected the day to end with Benjy in handcuffs and Luanne driving 45 minutes to wait for Benjy to be processed by the police department, but that’s exactly what happened. The school resource officer assigned to the school became aware of Benjy’s presence and proceeded to arrest him for an outstanding warrant. The school affirms that it wasn’t aware of the impending arrest and were powerless to intervene. Are we to assume that the arrest was one of convenience? Did the officer who attends the school regularly and by their own admission had frequent contact with Benjy not consider going to the home to exercise the warrant? Maybe the department was demonstrating its efforts to save the taxpayer gas money in serving the warrant elsewhere.
This begs deeper questions about the role and responsibilities of the school resource officer in Okeechobee County. Here are a few that need to be explored; What is the role of the school resource officer as understood by the school community? Is there a memorandum of understanding about roles and responsibilities pertaining to the use of school resource officers in Okeechobee County? What is the selection process and training for school resource officers in the district? Are school resource officers trained in understanding of students with disability or even the developmental needs of adolescents and/or how brain functioning affects their development? Who supervises and evaluates the school resource officer?
School resource officers can be a tremendous asset to the school culture. However, they can also create a culture that predicates its actions on consequences and authority rather than relationship building and trust.
Another Brick In The Wall
Some of you may recall the viral case Ryan Turk. In 2016 Ryan was arrested and charged with theft of a 65 cent milk for which he was entitled to as a student who received it free. After much wrangling amongst the school district, law enforcement and the courts, cooler heads (leadership) prevailed and charges were dropped. Ryan’s case is what I consider to be a textbook case of the school-to-prison pipeline. This pattern of charging students with violations of school code of conduct range from ‘stealing free milk’ to well, arresting a special needs student for manifesting behaviors already acknowledged. Benjy’s dilemma is not one of a special needs student, but one of a special needs student in a system that consistently reacts to meet its own needs, to service itself.
Over the next week we’ll examine each aspect of this case pertaining to the actions and roles of the ‘leadership’ and actors in Benjy’s dilemma. The questions posed here serve to provoke the relevant questions that may lend some much needed answers. This issue is bigger than Benjy, it represents thousands of families and children caught in the cycle of systems service. Let’s get the ball rolling’.