by Michelle Chan, Parents Against CPS Corruption (PACC)
Once upon a time, Valentine’s Day was for lovers, for preschoolers to exchange crayoned hearts and stickered up cards, for mommies and boys and daddies and girls to share dessert. This year Valentine’s Day belonged to Nikolas Cruz and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the 17 dead bodies in the city of Parkland in southern Florida, in a United States where mass murdering at schools has become a modern phenomenon.
What causes school shootings? Whether it is mental illness, or adverse childhood experiences, or violent video games, or the media, or too many or too few guns, or something benign like odd curiosities and an innate disconnect with the world and the people in it – whether it is none of these or all of these, we as a society need to start thinking of solutions and implementing practical preventive measures.
The one I propose today is to start taking our children and our schools and our children’s experiences in their schools very, very seriously. Instances of bullying in which a child is being singled out and that child is clearly in distress, instances of bullying and fist fights that would have been brushed off a few dozen years ago as kids being kids, instances in which children’s needs and frustrations are being ignored, all these and more need to be addressed and the perpetrators held accountable.
Good schools, a compassionate and well-intentioned child welfare system, and a diligent police force should be the first line of defense to deal with the problem before it begins. In particular, disadvantaged, disabled and at-risk children should have access to the best school environments with the best teachers, because they are already struggling with so much at home and in their communities.
In today’s climate, “No Child Left Behind” has greater implications than just test scores and poor individual outcomes. In an age where an increasing number of disillusioned American youths are looking up to Eric Harris, the architect of the Columbine massacre, as a role model and hero, we must do everything we can to optimize our children’s experiences at school.
Dennis Lockett and Lillian Somarriba allege that San Francisco school teachers abused, bullied and neglected their special needs children and the San Francisco Unified School District, Child Protective Services and the SFPD made no significant efforts to safeguard their children from future harm or to protect the public by holding the perpetrators accountable.
Dushay Williams: Abandoned and neglected in early childhood, then abused and neglected at school …
Dushay was 2 years old when he and his older brother were removed from their parent’s custody for abuse and abandonment. His parents had a history of substance abuse and domestic violence, and after they were unreachable after leaving the children with a family friend for five days, CPS intervened.
Dennis Lockett is the maternal uncle and secured placement and later guardianship of the boys and has raised and loved the boys as if they are his own children ever since. Lockett is now a resource specialist at Support for Families with Children with Disabilities and advocates against what he considers to be the abuse, neglect and discrimination of special needs children in San Francisco schools.
Dushay was 7 years old on Feb. 17, 2016, and had been struggling in the classroom due to impulsivity issues; Anne Dearlove, his second grade teacher, was frustrated that Dushay blurted things out in class, failed to complete homework on time, and tapped his pencil habitually. Just one month earlier, Lockett arranged a meeting with Ms. Dearlove and the school principal, Jean Robinson, in an attempt to switch classes. The request was denied.
On that Wednesday afternoon in February, in the hallway of Glen Park Elementary school, in front of other children and a video camera, Ms. Dearlove assaulted Dushay for tapping his pencil in class and then attempting to reenter her classroom three times after being sent out into the hall by himself. No matter how much he tried to explain to her that he wasn’t being defiant, that he didn’t understand these impulses that he could not control, that he was scared and lonely out in the hallway by himself, she wouldn’t listen.
He was being defiant, Dearlove told the principal. I was just trying to control him, she also told the principal. Dushay was suspended for one day. Dushay told a different story than the one Ms. Dearlove reported to the principal.
A few days later, a friend of Dushay’s older brother approached Lockett during pick-up time. “I saw the whole thing,” said the gregarious, Brazilian-American fourth-grader. “She came out of the room and tried to grab him and Dushay tried to get away by swinging his arms. Then she grabbed him hard in the chest area and slammed him against the wall and he fell to the ground. And then he ran away and she just went back into the classroom. It’s all on video, there are cameras in the hallways.”
Lockett was able to view that video along with an education attorney, Nicole Bates. His work colleague and friend, Felix Lopez, was also in attendance. The video corroborated Dushay’s side of the story and Dushay has since been diagnosed with Turret’s syndrome. He really wasn’t being defiant; his blurting out words and tapping of pencils was a symptom of his disability.
The video has since been destroyed and Ms. Dearlove has yet to be held accountable in any significant way. Moreover, it took an entire month for the safety transfer to go through that would allow Dushay to transfer to a new school and hopefully a less hostile environment.
Tyler Ochoa: A nonverbal child cries out for help …
Tyler Ochoa’s mother, Lillian Somarriba, a subsidized housing advocate of Nicaraguan descent, raised him as a single mother. Tyler hit all of his milestones late: smiling, crawling, walking and talking. In fact, at 8 years old he can still barely talk. He has an intellectual disability and expresses himself primarily through his hand gestures and by pointing.
Tyler was in the second grade at Sanchez Elementary School located in the Castro district of San Francisco when his behavior changed drastically.
“He would return home crying every day for one, maybe two months,” said Lillian. “As soon as he left school, he’d be crying. He’d cry all the way on the bus ride to his day care. And then he would refuse to get off the bus until the bus driver called me to come get him. Finally, she said to me one day that she thought something was going on at school, that his behavior wasn’t normal.”
Lillian showed up one day at his school as he got off, to investigate the root of the problem. As he walked out from school, Tyler was already crying.
“No one would give me any answers,” she said. “Not the teacher, not the principal. When I arrived to drop Tyler off in the mornings, the teacher and his aides were always very hostile and dismissive and the environment of the classroom was always hectic and disorganized.”
Lillian arranged through the school to come observe her child. However, when she arrived, Logan Crawford, Tyler’s teacher, refused to allow her into the classroom. Mr. Crawford is a bald, heavy-set Caucasian man who favors casual attire with colorful action socks that pop out like neon on a dim, rainy day.
“I’m down an aide today,” he said. “You can’t come in.”
All her son’s tears built up inside her chest, pulling her heart and soul into knots. The bus driver’s voice echoed in the back of her mind, the bus driver who talked to her, parent to parent, that something just isn’t right.
Mr. Crawford paced back and forth, his body language and voice became increasingly aggressive and frantic. Lillian felt so helpless she started crying. The more Lillian cried, the more aggressive and intrusive Mr. Crawford became. Lillian alleges that the school social worker came and had to physically calm Mr. Crawford down, grabbing him by the shoulder and arm and removing him from the area.
It was after this incident that Lillian was able to secure a safety transfer out of Sanchez Elementary and into Sunnyside Elementary.
On Sept. 13, 2016, shortly after transferring into Michelle Gruber’s classroom, Lillian alleges that she saw Ms. Gruber smack her son on his hand as he attempted to express himself through his gestures.
All the pain she watched her son go through at Sanchez Elementary came flooding back. Lillian felt a strong need to protect her son. To Lillian, smacking Tyler on the hands was symbolic of smacking him across the mouth or choking him while he is trying to speak.
Lillian ended up pulling Tyler out of school for two months until she was able to secure another placement for him. She received no assistance from Sunnyside Elementary or from the San Francisco Unified School District in securing another placement.
SFPD and Child Protective Services fail to protect
In both these cases, police reports were filed but the SFPD did not pursue charges. In Dennis Lockett’s case, he was told by the officer that this is something CPS should investigate, so Lockett did not push to have the police investigate. In Lillian’s case, the SFPD Special Victim’s Unit opened an investigation but dropped the charges because her son is primarily nonverbal and could not tell the investigating officer what happened.
Dennis Lockett alleges that he called the Child Abuse Hotline to report Dushay’s abuse to CPS, but was told to contact his guardianship worker, since Dushay was already in the system. However, Dushay’s guardianship worker, Jack Pital, informed Mr. Lockett that it is not his role to investigate new allegations of child abuse. Pital’s supervisor confirmed this.
As a courtesy, Pital visited Dushay’s school and spoke with the principal. At this meeting, the school principal, Jean Robinson, allegedly told Pital that neither she nor her teachers are trained to deal with little Black boys.
At this point, Lockett again attempted to get CPS to open an investigation against the teacher, Ms. Dearlove. Lockett was told that CPS only investigates child abuse allegations at home, not in the community.
However, last year a state inspector was criticized in the local media and the state was sued by a dead baby’s family for not reporting neglect conditions at a day care facility. According to the state’s own training manual, abuse and neglect must be reported if the perpetrator is a person responsible for the child’s welfare. See sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2017/02/08/state-licensed-daycare-provider-repeatedly-cited-prior-to-babys-death/.
Moreover, in Lillian’s case, an investigation was in fact opened but the allegations were determined to be unsubstantiated. So how is it that in Dushay’s case, he was told that CPS does not investigate child abuse in the community, but then in Tyler’s case it was investigated but nothing was done?
Let’s flip the script in Lockett’s case. Imagine he had done what Ms. Dearlove did to Dushay. Imagine if Lockett had put 7-year-old Dushay out in the hallway alone for a minor infraction, a hallway with unlocked doors off of a major street near the freeway. And then when Dushay became scared and restless, Dearlove responded by assaulting the child on video, then afterwards leaving him alone again as he runs off into the distance.
Now flip the script in Lillian’s situation. Let’s say every day her child left her home crying, arrives at school distraught and clearly does not want to return home, and then later a social worker witnesses his mother smacking him hard on his hand as he attempts to express himself.
In both these scenarios, the children would likely have been removed and placed in state custody. Why is it then that when the perpetrators are teachers there is no accountability?
Both of these children have disabilities that impact their ability to effectively communicate with the world and are at high risk for further marginalization.
Professor Steven R. Isham, an award-winning educator and child advocate, has extensive experience and training working with special needs children, and is the author of “Child and Family Advocacy and Education for Parents, Teachers, and Social Workers.” He shares his perspective:
“Our public school systems in the United States are antiquated and simply unable to keep our children safe, healthy, and free from abuse, bullying and an ever increasing level of violence. The substantial yearly increase in charter schools, private schools and homeschooling by parents is evidence that people no longer trust our public schools to provide an unimpeded education.
“The effect on students with disabilities in our schools is exponentially greater depending on the intensity of their individual needs. Students in Special Education do not get a Free Appropriate Public Education in our school systems in this country, period.
“The lack of accountability by state departments of education over schools is inadequate and the United States Department of Education accountability over state departments of education is even more inadequate and political.
“Our children deserve so much more than our schools are capable of providing. School shootings and school violence are examples of the system being unable to keep the lid on a ‘boiling pot’ ready to explode at any time.”
We need to start listening to children and taking their pain and suffering and school experiences seriously. Every experience, every child. Every child has a breaking point. Let’s do our best to ensure that fewer children reach that point.
Call to action
We are urging people to call the San Francisco Mayor’s Office at 415-554-6141 and to email Matthew Haney at MattHaney@sfusd.edu and demand that special needs children receive more supportive services, that allegations of abuse and neglect of children in San Francisco schools are taken more seriously, and for Dushay and Tyler to receive more support from the school district and tutoring. Lockett specifically wants for Dushay to be allowed to remain in general education with the help of a paraprofessional and Lillian wants to receive compensation for the time Tyler was out of school and waiting for a new placement.
Michelle Chan is founder and president of Parents Against CPS Corruption. For more information on her organization, visit ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com. She can be reached at Protest@ParentsAgainstCPSCorruption.com.