The Importance of School Choice

I always feel the need to add a disclaimer when writing about why I chose to homeschool and why I think it is better for my family. I do believe that public school is better for some children/families, and I want to be very, very clear that I do not think less of a parent who chooses to send a child to a brick-and-mortar school. That said…

With the start of the school year approaching, this is the first year since my children were born that I have known exactly what I was going to do and felt completely confident in that decision.

Last year, I started homeschooling my then 2nd grader and my Kindergartner. My reasons were many, but a lot of it was based on my daughter’s first two years of school at a public bricks-and-mortar elementary school. Though she is bright and well-liked, she still faced bullying that ranged from crude verbal attacks to physical violence resulting in injuries. Both of my children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders; my daughter is very mildly affected, whereas my son has a great deal more challenges. They are also both advanced learners, and in a typical public school, their diverse needs cannot really be thoroughly met. And our first year went great, leaving no question as to what to do this year.

While I have yet to be short on affirmations regarding my decision to homeschool my children, the seemingly endless stream of news about horrifying incidents taking place in public schools serves as a reminder that I’ve done what is right for us. Take, for example, the incident last December when a 9 year-old autistic boy was stuffed into a “therapy” bag by special education staff. It would have been awful enough if his peers had done it, but what makes this incident particularly appalling is that his teachers did this to him. Apparently, according to the school, the boy had been “jumping off the walls”.

As the mother of a 6 year-old autistic son, I can say without hesitation that I know those days well. But, I also know that there are almost countless ways to properly, kindly, respectfully, and safely deal with it. The school failed on every point. Thankfully, the boy’s mother had been called to come get him that day.

While the general population would probably struggle to understand an autistic child’s specific needs, especially during a difficult moment or on a bad day, this child was in a special needs program. One would assume that the staff assigned to that program would have had, I don’t know, at least the first clue that stuffing the kid into a bag and cinching it shut isn’t on the list of even remotely acceptable or helpful solutions. I would assume that any random human being without any training or experience at all with autism would know better than to do such a thing, so the fact that these are special education professionals make this unfathomable to me.

A major dilemma for us as we considered the best options for our son as Kindergarten approached was that he is an intellectually gifted autistic child. Academically, he would be at least a grade level beyond his peers. Behaviorally, he would be younger, more awkward, and less flexible. The sensory aspects of school, from the humming fluorescent lights to the ticking clock to the gag-worthy cafeteria smells would wreck his mood and limit his academic potential. Clearly, public school was not the best option for him, at least not yet. And perhaps it isn’t for the child in the article, either. But parents of children with autism often get a double shot to their confidence as parents; society largely sends the messages that (a) we, as parents, are incapable of teaching our children more than tooth brushing, table manners and toileting, and (b) parents of autistic children, as soon as they are done “mourning the loss of the child they expected” (I quote that because it’s garbage to me), should run to the phone and start dialing the number of every ABA therapist in their local area and beyond.

I hope to help dispel such myths and remind parents how much they really matter. They say “kids today” have some major issues, and I’ll be the first to agree. Society wants to point fingers at everything from low church attendance to junk television, but my belief is that it is all directly related to the growing perception that parents have no power in their children’s lives. It is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children with special needs like autism have an even greater need for parents who believe they are strong and capable of helping children, to be what they need, to make good choices for them and help them grow into healthy adults who make their own good choices. Stuffing kids into gym bags isn’t the answer. Empowering parents, having more school choice, demanding consistency and accountability from schools – that is where our answers start. But the reality is that schools want all of the power, none of the responsibility, and parents are not supposed to have a say unless given permission by school administrators. This kind of thing is in the news far too much, and not everyone has the option to remove their child from public bricks-and-mortar schools; this is exactly why empowered parents and school choice is so critical.

I sincerely hope that little boy is okay. The psychological trauma from going through something like that is bad enough for any child, let alone a child on the spectrum. I was happy to hear that he is now being home-schooled. Thank goodness for school choice! Sadly, there are children just like him enduring this kind of abuse on a daily basis. It changes when we change. Speaking of change, there is a petition to End Abuse of Autistic Students in Mercer County, KY if you feel motivated to lend your voice to this issue.

Whether you are a homeschooling parent, a traditional school parent, a PTA member and a bake sale parent, an unschooling parent, a parent who sends their child to a private school or a parochial school, you matter in your child’s education more than anyone else. Be a voice for yourself and your child. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re anything less. When we allow that to happen, kids get stuffed into gym bags in schools because some people think they have god-like power and are immune to consequences. And that is unacceptable.

About the author, Shannon Bonnette.