One Person at a Time

By Shelly Christensen
In Guest Bloggers

In my family we like to say we spell our last name with the Jewish spelling. My husband became a Jew by choice after 18 years of marriage (my parents finally got that Jewish son-in-law)! We raised our three children as Jews, complete with Bubies and Zadies. All three attended religious school, had b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, completed confirmation and traveled to Israel. Our congregation, Bet Shalom, Minnetonka MN welcomed us and treated us, and all of the other families like us with respect and support.

Our middle son Jacob was diagnosed with ADHD at eight and with Asperger syndrome at 15, he was not treated any differently than his peers. School staff treated him like everyone else with accommodations based on his needs. Jacob has many strengths including public speaking and was the spokesperson for his Confirmation trip to Senator Paul Wellstone’s office.

Jacob’s public school could have learned some lessons from Jacob’s synagogue school treating students with disabilities with dignity and respect.

To them Jacob was a label with troublesome behavior and troublesome parents.

Frustrated with the endless “Mrs. Christensen” calls I boned up on special education law to learn Jacobs’s rights. When the principal called to say that he was giving Jacob in – school suspension for “poking a hole in a concrete wall with a pencil” my second reaction (first being “are you kidding me??) was “I will not allow you this unless you can prove how you intend to provide Jacob with a FREE APPROPRIATE PUBLIC EDUCATION in the LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT!” My words were taken directly from the special education law of the land, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

A few months later my husband and I went to conferences. I noticed was that three staff members waited for us, while other parents had one. I thought, “here we go again.”

Agenda Item: How to discipline Jacob the next time he poked a hole in a concrete wall with a pencil.

“Mr. and Mrs. Christensen. We know you don’t like in school suspension,” said the special education teacher.

“Not without a Free Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment,” I reminded him.  He spoke again. “We have a plan.” He barreled through his remarks without taking breath. “The next time Jacob acts up, we’ll put him in a cab to the school bus depot with a toothbrush and he can clean buses.”

“WHAT?!” My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. “You’re joking, right?” I asked, marveling that someone could even come up with such a ridiculous plan.

“No.”

My husband spoke quietly. “The answer is no. This is no way to provide a consequence for behavior. In any situation I can think of. No.”

Later I learned that “Brushing the Bus” was district-wide policy to punish misbehaving students.

We moved Jacob to a new school district that mirrored the core philosophies of Jacob’s synagogue school.

Treat each person as a unique individual. Teach each child according to his or her needs. Parents, educators and the student work together as a team.

Amazing things happen when we all work together.

Shelly Christensen, founder of Inclusion Innovations, is a consultant and speaker working with synagogues and  Jewish organizations to facilitate inclusive practices based on Jewish values. She is co-founder of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM) and co-chair of the Access to Lifelong Jewish Learning Task Force of the Union for Reform Judaism. Shelly is the author of The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. [email protected]