Violence and Down Syndrome: Victim Blaming

One of my concerns with the language about disability and violence, whether domestic, in institutions, or in public, is an easy tendency to link the violent outcome to the disability, rather than focusing on the perpetrator of the violence. Such rhetoric doesn’t tend, or in I think intend, to excuse the violence, but it does suggest that disability is a mitigating circumstance. 

And I’m sure sometimes it is. Sometimes, people who would not otherwise be violent, find themselves unable to respond to a particularly difficult situation, so act badly. But that’s an explanation, not a mitigation.

On Monday, a story came up about a boy with Down Syndrome who was dragged across the floor by a principal of a school for children with special needs in Florida.

Here’s what happened:

“The child was defiant,” said Lt. Adam Militello with the Neptune Beach Police Department. “He was not getting up from the ground and the principal pulled him across the floor, just under 30 feet, some of it unfortunately over concrete and over two door thresholds.”
Cesar Suarez remembers picking his child up from school that day. And he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“You could imagine, when I saw his hand like that and his rib cage I said ‘Jesus Christ this is criminal,’” Cesar Suarez said. “‘What did you do to my baby?’ The only thing she could say is ‘I’m deeply sorry.’”

He says New Leaf Principal, Ronda McDonald, has apologized several times, sending cards and emails. 

Here’s what I think happened – I think McDonald just snapped. She was frustrated at the boy who wouldn’t get up, and she lost it. I think she’s deeply ashamed.

I think she and the district will be sued.

I think she should be charged with child abuse (click to the original link and see the picture/video).

I think she should lose her job. 

I’m sorry about all three of these things. As a parent, I know what it’s like to be so frustrated that you can feel the anger emotions roaring through your body. It happens to me. Sometimes I yell. I’m not proud of those times. Sometimes I just walk away and breathe for a few moments. I’m very proud of those times. Getting frustrated is normal. Getting physical is criminal.

But earlier in the article is a line that concerns me. It’s paraphrasing the grandmother. It reads: “She said that as a child with Down Syndrome, he sometimes throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up.

I read this sentence as explanatory, and I don’t blame the grandmother, but the journalist for writing it this way. It suggests that because he has DS, he throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up. My son does this. It’s a passive resistance strategy learned by kids with limited verbal skills. My problem is that the piece links this behavior to the violent response by the principal, as if that explains it (if not forgives it).

In fact, the real issue here is not the flinging to the ground. The real issue is communication. Both of my kids sometimes fling themselves to the ground and refuse to get up, but with my daughter, I know she understands me when I verbally engage. I don’t know if my son understands me, so I have to engage with words, tone, and touch – sometimes soft, and sometimes, yes, I pick him up (if say it’s in the middle of the street – which has happened). I’m just concerned with this language that makes disability causal.

Many of the reports on Ethan Saylor, especially in the first few months, had this kind of language – so that’s the stakes. Reporting and statements from organizations linked his broken throat to his Down syndrome. Such language implied that Ethan died not because of police brutality, but because the police did everything right and his Down Syndrome asphyxiated him. That’s not what the pathology seemed to show. That kind of thinking has led to a lack of investigation, a lack of justice.

Finally – Is this another example of the cult of compliance? The principal, authority figure, is being defied, so she decides instead of investing patience in the situation, she’ll just react physically. It’s the same pattern as in all the cases of police violence against people with disability that I’ve been writing about for the last six months.

What do you think?

P.S. This event, I think, shows the limitations of awareness. The principal was “aware.” She ran a special-needs school!

6 Replies to “Violence and Down Syndrome: Victim Blaming”

  1. Amy Dietrich Hernandez says:

    My son has Ds and has done the flopping on the floor thing at school in the past. At 14, he's mostly over it, but there were years where much of his learning came while prone under his desk. This was not the ideal situation, of course, but unless he was in danger, his teachers ignored it. I would have understood if this principal had hoisted him up and moved him out of harms way. But there was no reason to drag him anywhere other than her own frustration. And kids are frustrating. All kids are frustrating. Saying that Ds had anything to do with it is like saying "Well, I hurt the baby because she cried". Kids are stubborn, babies cry. Violence should never be then answer to those issues.

    1. David Perry says:

      Right. I agree with everything here. The collapse and refusal to move is a typical passive resistance strategy for someone with limited verbal ability (or learned as a child even when verbal skills advance) – that behavior doesn't explain the violent response.

      I was thinking of the "Baby cried" analogy too. We're on the same page.

  2. Jisun says:

    I can't help but feel that there is a pattern of people considering a disabled person's body less… sacrosanct, maybe, than a non-disabled person's body. I read about the universal experience that disabled people have in which people touch them, their devices (like a wheelchair), or move them without permission or legitimate reason. In all these cases, the message seems to be that disability makes you a non-person. If you are useful or compliant, then fine. If not, then your body is forfeit.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is not necessarily in the same vein, but in Googling down syndrome children and violence, this article came up. I need advice. I have a four-year-old son who does not have Down Syndrome. Today, we went to a restaurant that had a play area. My son is big (tall and muscular) for his age, and I've always been worried about his playing in the play area there in fear that HE might hurt someone. Today at lunch he came screaming and crying out of the play area. It took five minutes to calm him down to the point to figure out that another child hurt him. At this time, I saw a mother enter the play area and then come back out (by herself) but look at me as if I were a horrible parent because my child is screaming in the restaurant. So, after I finally calm my son down enough to find out that another child pinched him on the cheeks hard (and also I later found out from another child that the same child had first hit my son on the chin…and on the way home discovered that the child had pulled my son's legs out from under him), I decided to go find the child, explain to him (possibly not in the nicest tone of voice) that hurting my child is not acceptable, and then tracking down the child's parents (by the way…the woman who stared my child and me down for my son's screaming was the boy's mother and she knew what he did and still did nothing to stop the child) to explain to them that their child's behavior was unacceptable…it turns out the child had Down's. The one who violently hurt my son. Of course, I couldn't take action against the child or the parents, but how do you explain to a four-year-old who only understands that he was hurt for no reason? (By the way, my son did not behave with aggression to the child. Several other children and the parents who were sitting in the play area–the only reason I was not in there physically was because there was no more room for parents–substantiated that the other child turned violent toward my son for no reason.) How is anyone (whether they "know" what they are doing or not…and this child knew that what he did to my child was wrong) allowed to do violence to another? How is it more acceptable for some? Because I even knew it was "taboo" to blame a child with Down's for his behavior. I hate to say it, but I'm furious with the parents because they knew that their child was violent, knew that he was the one who hurt my son, didn't remove their child from the play area, didn't apologize to my son (but instead looked at me as if I were a horrible mother and my child a horrible child because my child was screaming because THEIR CHILD HURT MY CHILD).

    1. David Perry says:

      I'm really glad you wrote me and feel free to email me at lollardfish AT gmail DOT com if you want more conversation. This is important.

      It's a very tricky issue, but having Down syndrome does NOT mean one can hurt other people without consequence. That is exactly the opposite message that I would hope to convey. The challenge is finding a way to engage with the parents and child productively. Just raising your voice or imposing time-outs might well not help, depending on the developmental level.

      For me, the first step is to comfort your son. I'm sorry that people looked at you as if you were a horrible parent, but don't let them get you down! People judge all the time and are usually clueless about context; ultimately, the opinions of strangers aren't that important (to me anyway).

      Then it's time to engage the parent and tell them that these are the things that happened and ask if it's possible to help them here. Keep in mind that those parents likely feel judged and excluded all the time and will take it hard. That's not a reason to spare them the story, but it is a reason to go into it with empathy. People with Down syndrome are not any more likely to be violent by nature than anyone else, but they do often have boundary issues. I knew a boy who liked to grab hair and pull – it was interesting for him. My son often pushes hands away, sometimes slapping, when he's angry. We don't have to just excuse this behavior, but we also have to approach it knowing that typical interventions might not have a lot of meaning.

      Dialogue. Patience. Creativity. Talk to the parents. Say something like, "I know you've got a lot of challenges, but you should know that your child hurt my child today in the play area. Is there a way we can talk to him about more appropriate play?"

      For my son, social stories are really useful. Here's a model of one on playing nicely –

      I bet the parents have a therapist who could make one for their child.

      Again, I'm sorry you had this experience and SO GLAD you commented here. Send me messages any time.


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