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Dear teachers, can we talk?

This is a request to all of the teachers out there. Whether you think of yourself as teaching students with disabilities or not, I’d like just a couple of minutes of your time. You see, my soul has been troubled of late.

I keep thinking about the statements of educational professionals in the O’Neill case in Sarasota. That’s the case where the teacher was ordered reinstated by an arbitrator after she was found to have “hit, hurt and treated students … roughly in ways unrelated to the learning process,” engaging in a “pattern of abuse” of the students with disabilities who were assigned to her classroom.

This is what bothers me—one of the grounds that the school district based their firing of her on was the statements that she made to and about her students—statements that were belittling, humiliating and dehumanizing.

She admitted to saying about one of her students in front of another adult present that the student was just “sitting there sucking up oxygen” and that her mouth looked like—forgive me (and her)—a “butthole.”

What happened to her because of these statements? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

The arbitrator found that these types of statements were “observations” and “humor” and that there was no evidence that they were intended to be understood by the children about whom they were made.

I thought, OK, he’s an arbitrator, not an educator, maybe it’s permissible as a legal technicality—a really, really big maybe. But, I thought, this conduct can’t and won’t be tolerated by other educational professionals. Right? Wrong.

Rich La Belle, executive directorFamily Network on Disabilities of Florida