A Boy and a Pool Noodle – Discipline and Special Needs

A few days ago over on my Facebook page I shared the story of the school district that took away a blind child’s cane and replaced it with a “pool noodle.” The cane technically belongs to the school district, and when the bus attendant reported that he was waving it in the air and potentially hitting someone with it, they confiscated it. Instead, they gave him a nerf pool noodle to replace it.

The school has apologized and reversed its decision. Here’s a good blog post on the story, with these vital points:

To me, this isn’t the issue. Dakota is still a young boy. It’s entirely possible that on occasion, he’s used his cane in questionable ways. It’s also possible he’s still learning how to control his cane, and not accidentally bump it into people or trip them up. The point to me is that the school should have a more thoughtful set of guidelines and procedures for how to deal with Dakota if he should misbehave, as most 8-year-olds misbehave from time to time. And a central tenet of any disciplinary plan should be to never take away an assistive device a child depends on for independence and mobility. This would apply to canes, crutches, a speech device, a wheelchair, or any other equipment that helps them with their particular disability.

I’ve been troubled by how many people I’ve seen on social media saying: “Well the kid acted up, of course the school had to take away his stick!” That is the wrong attitude. Below, I’ll offer some thoughts about why.

Here are my thoughts.
  1. A cane for someone with vision impairment is a specific piece of assistive technology, designed to give maximum tactile input to the user. It is not just a stick.
  2. The school and parents have not reported on the precise incident, but the boy’s parents say it was likely just a misunderstanding. That he lifted his cane in the air and the bus attendant decided it meant he was trying to hit someone.
  3. I am a critic of zero tolerance policies and I see them as a component of the #cultofcompliance. Schools have decided, as a reaction to the fear of violent incidents on their grounds, that ANY sign of violence, especially weapon-driven violence, must be met with the maximum disciplinary response (students suspended for: drawing a gun, having a picture with a gun, pointing his finger at another child).
  4. While zero tolerance can apply to anyone, it is not meted out equally (studied on black preschoolers suspended for fighting). The question is how do the discipline imposing forces interpret typical kid behavior, which includes real fighting, pretend fighting, fake weapon art and weapon play, and so forth. This kind of prejudicial interpretation also applies to kids with special needs.
  5. When kids with special needs act in unpredictable ways, too many authority figures panic. Whereas a typical child would likely get verbal discipline and verbal interventions, there’s a presumed communicative wall making it harder for the usual interventions to work. Moreover, when dealing with assistive technology, there’s a tangible thing you can take away. No teacher would stitch up a child’s eyes. No teacher would duct tape over a child’s mouth, and yet my son’s “voice,” his communication device, could be taken from him. I’ve heard from parents of older kids who wouldn’t stop talking with their device, who had their device removed. That is simply not acceptable practice. Can you imagine a child in a wheelchair who won’t sit still being dumped on the ground? Yes, they’d sit still, but it’s a failure and it’s abuse. Taking away this child’s cane is abuse. 
  6. I blogged the other day about two 6-year-olds placed in restraints due to behavior issues. I acknowledged that misbehavior can be complicated. Oppositional defiant disorder can be tough (although a neuroscientists I know argued that it’s often mis-diagnosed autism, but that’s a different subject). Sometimes, you’re going to need an intervention. Here’s my mantra though – any intervention, accommodation, or response to special needs that ends up with handcuffs on a six year old is a failed intervention. The same can be said of any intervention that ends up denying access to an assistive technology device.
Here’s my core question. I’m glad the school district gave back the cane, but have they actually learned anything? Next time a child with special needs requires an intervention, will they change their procedures?

And speaking of learning, the root for the word discipline comes from the Latin for teaching or instruction. So what does Dakota learn? He learns that by lifting his cane in the are, acting out in any way, authority will remove his means of navigating the world independently.

That’s exactly the opposite of the lesson we want to teach.

2 Replies to “A Boy and a Pool Noodle – Discipline and Special Needs”

  1. Dona Yasser says:

    A callous and irresponsible move by the school. What troubles me is how or when the parents were informed of this "discipline." If it was not discussed with them prior, or if they, as it appears, had no recourse to reverse it, then something is very wrong with the school's understanding of the rights of special needs children and parents. Aside from being cruel and abusive, it is potentially illegal to take away an assistive device that the school board has deemed necessary for a child. I haven't finished reading up on MO law, but generally when a school wants to implement a serious disciplinary action that lasts for two weeks and affects the child's ability to function,there needs to be a hearing. This was a gross overreaction and yes, I hope the school learned something.

    That being said, I have to admit I am disappointed with the parents for having a news crew film their son out walking with the pool noodle, and heading out to an event with the pool noodle, as though that is their only recourse because it's what the school gave him. You don't have a cane, OK. Make your point that a pool noodle is ineffective, but for the child's sake, replace it with something that might actually help him. Make a temporary cane from dowling, something. Your resourcefulness doesn't lessen the school's culpability, it makes you seem like a more caring parent, and it does away with the "poor me/helpless" image that as special needs parents we really do not want or need.

  2. David Perry says:

    I respectfully disagree. I think making this a news story is EXACTLY what parents should be doing, to show both the district and the country how not to handle such situations.

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