“What Do You Mean You Didn’t See My Kid’s 504 Plan?!”
The unthinkable was happening to my child: He was being shamed and bullied by his gym teacher — a teacher who was never shown my son’s 504 Plan in a district that seemed unbothered by my claims of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. So what choice did I have but to take our fight all the way to the U.S. Department of Education?
It wasn’t until my son started coming home from school, slamming his bedroom door, and swearing that he wasn’t going back to gym class that I started to realize I may have been wrong for doubting him. It was fourth grade. He was struggling in school because of his ADHD and anxiety, but one area where he never struggled was gym class. Suddenly, mid-year, he started to hate gym and complained that he was always getting in trouble with the new gym teacher.
My son’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) sometimes causes him to not pay attention to what is going on. Even with medication, he struggles with moodiness and irritability with no appetite. Being a teacher myself, I know that sometimes students may not always tell the whole story accurately or without exaggeration, so when my son told me he was getting in trouble in gym class and getting picked on by his teacher, I figured my son was just mad about getting in trouble.
Weeks went by and things continued to get worse. My son started to pretend to be sick on gym days and begged me to pick him up every day for lunch. I was at work myself as a 6th grade teacher, so I would pick him up, skip my own lunch, feed him, bring him back to school, and go back to work. It still haunts me that I didn’t sit down sooner with him and ask him to explain what was happening. My son started gaining weight and, because he has hypothyroid, his thyroid levels started elevating. His grades began dropping and his self-esteem was diminishing. He said everyone at school hated him.
I finally emailed the teacher and he responded explaining about some trivial incident that caused my son to sit out of a game for a few minutes. I assumed my son was overreacting to this and angry he had to sit out for getting overly aggressive and competitive in games. This is why he must feel like he was being picked on. So, I let it go.
Then I started getting emails and phone calls from the principal and this gym teacher saying that my son wasn’t listening and that fights were breaking out with him in gym class. I started noticing some of the other special area teachers getting angry with him. The music teacher always seemed annoyed with his uneven attention and participation, as well. It never occurred to me that these teachers weren’t aware of his ADHD. By law, they had to have known about it by reading his 504 Accommodation Plan, right?
Then the truth came out. My son blurted out one Monday morning that the gym teacher was always annoyed with him and gave him dirty looks. He went on to say that if he tried to explain himself, he was immediately ignored and shut down. The teacher would yell at him and mock him while the other students would join in by badgering him. The kids would instigate and make comments purposely to get him angry. I understood that the teacher would need to discipline my son, but why wouldn’t the teacher stop the other students from making remarks to get him mad? My son said that the teacher would see it and watch the other kids laugh when he got angry. In his mind he felt out of control in this class, unheard, alone, and scared.
I felt terrible. I had so many questions. Is he overreacting? I don’t want to be the “Not My Kid” parent. Was it the ADHD? Was it not? How is it that his classroom teachers always talked highly of him? Is this guy really being mean to him?
Finally, my son came home one day and told me that the teacher told him “not to be a jerk.” Right away, the teacher in me said that there was no way a teacher would use that word with a fourth grader. My son must have misheard or took it out of context. The parent in me wanted to call this guy and scream. But first, I called a friend of mine to see what her kid saw since she was in that same gym class! This student did confirm my son’s story, so I emailed the gym teacher, who told me he “forgot” about the “jerk” incident (Yeah, right). He said that the students were throwing balls around at each other at the end of class. When he turned around and told them to stop, my son threw the ball again and it hit a girl in the face. He told him that he doesn’t need to be a “jerk” and keep throwing the ball after being told to stop. This teacher apologized over and over saying that he didn’t mean it the way it came out.
Now, some parents may not think this is a big deal, but being an educator, I know that you never use the word jerk to any student regardless of their grade or the circumstance. Personally, I wouldn’t even joke about it because you never know how a student will take it. It’s not professional. I thought, “What did he mean they were throwing the balls at each other? My son wouldn’t hit anyone on purpose.” That much I knew. At that point I was so stressed out and annoyed that he could have apologized until the cows came home. I’d had enough at that point.
I requested a meeting with the principal, my husband, and this gym teacher. Now, I never was very outspoken, I barely stood up for myself, and I always let things go. However, there’s something inside of you, regardless of what your normal demeanor is, that changes when it has to do with your kid. A warrior unveils herself and refuses to back down. It was like I became a completely different person. I didn’t care if they hated me. I didn’t care what they thought. I didn’t care about anything at that point other than why my son was getting into fist fights with his peers, missing lunches and gym classes, and feeling like his teacher and classmates hated him.
Then it came out: This man had no idea that my son had ADHD and anxiety. I asked him if he had seen the 504 Accommodation plan, which is a LEGAL document and should always be shown to all teachers. He claimed that he had not. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I stared him in the eye and let the words slowly roll out of my mouth with an intensity that surprised even me: “What… do … you … mean… you …. didn’t… see…. the 504 plan?” What just happened to my son was against the law and, after everything that I had been through the past few months, it took everything in me to remain calm.
In schools, a teacher needs to be aware that a student has ADHD. It takes a child with ADHD time to process what is being said to them and to others at times. The teacher told the kids in the class to stop what they were doing. The other students heard the first time and stopped throwing balls. However, a child with ADHD may not hear you the first three times. You may say it seven times, but that seventh time may be the first one that permeates the ADHD brain. What my son also needed was time to think before recalling events that happened in the class. He wasn’t able to always recall events right away, which made him look like he was in the wrong when a problem occurred between him and another student. He couldn’t organize his thoughts in time to fully explain what happened. So, when my son was asked what happened with the ball, he just stared at the teacher with anxiety; he couldn’t get it out in time. The other student already gave a full explanation of what happened from her point of view. (Also, kids with ADHD need organization, rules, and routine, so maybe the kids shouldn’t be throwing balls at each other at the end of class while the teacher does something else. Just a thought.)
I left there sick to my stomach and angry, but I am a professional, so I assumed the teacher would attempt to change the atmosphere of the class and be kinder. No. If anything, things got worse. My son cried all the time. The damage was done, and this gym teacher became nastier and nastier in the way he spoke to my son. Even my son’s psychiatrist was livid and called the school to discuss ways to help and what they should be doing to accommodate him.
I wrote letters to Board of Education Members and got no response. I finally filed a HIB report, which stands for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying, on this teacher because enough was enough. It wasn’t fair that the law was broken, and my child was suffering, and no one was being held accountable or even attempting to make the environment better. Then I found out that not one special area teacher was shown his 504 Accommodation Plan. How could these drastic mistakes be made?!
I met with the Interim Superintendent, who basically blew me off and told me that he felt that all these “ADHD kids” were the same and that “these things happen” because of their problem.
I felt completely defeated. My son should feel safe in school. Instead, he went everyday worried — and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I remember sitting at work during my break crying. I couldn’t afford to send him to a private school and I didn’t think it was fair that he should be the one to leave. He was also missing gym. He couldn’t miss any more days or he would fail. His grades were dropping and he was becoming increasingly sad.
Then I had a breakthrough and thought that there was no way that my son’s 504 was the only one not being seen by certain teachers. I wanted to make sure this never happened to anybody else and I fought back. I wanted him to see me advocate for him and learn that if you are wrongly treated, you need to stick up for yourself.
I reminded myself that I wasn’t wrong and neither was my son. I kept writing to the Board of Education members and I refused to be ignored. I knew similar situations had to have occurred. I spoke to teachers at my school, I spoke to lawyers, I spoke to guidance counselors, and an advocate. I finally wrote to the US Department of Education. The lawyers called me back, spoke to me and asked to see a copy of his 504 Accommodation Plan. They called the school and got information. The lawyers called me back explaining that I was right. The district was in violation, and I was to have a 504 Meeting immediately and have a new plan drawn up. The district was monitored and had to show that it was following the laws.
The Interim Superintendent ended up resigning.
Still, our battles at the school continued. I resolved that I would not be silent; I would keep fighting for my son and I would not let the bullies win.
Shortly thereafter, I received news that the gym teacher resigned. After all the meetings, emails, phone calls, research, tears, gossip, and stress, I won. I fought, and I won. After hitting dead end after dead end, after feeling no one would listen to me or believe my son, I came out on top and was able to bring peace for him in his school environment. That was all I ever wanted.
Last summer, I met with my son’s guidance counselors before he started middle school. They were impressed with his 504 Plan from elementary school. They said it was the best one they’ve ever seen. I laughed and said, “Well, yeah. There’s a reason for that. Long story.”
Updated on September 5, 2019