By Jeff Whittle
On Saturday, June 11, I was given one of the greatest honors of my life. I was asked to speak at the Lansing, Mich., March for Our Lives rally on the steps of the state Capitol, one of more than 450 such events across the country. This one was a student-driven event, run flawlessly. Speakers included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin.
After a wonderful introduction from an Okemos High School student, I nervously approached the lectern. I had a speech written and ready to go. But before beginning my prepared speech, I decided to go with my gut and touch on something an earlier speaker had said.
She said that one of her grandchildren was taught to run out of the school in a crisis or shooter situation. “Run out of the building and into the woods,” I think she said. At that moment, all I could imagine was our school’s special education students and the staff who work with them.
How is a staff person, or two or three, supposed to hurriedly get a group of students in wheelchairs — students with physical disabilities or intellectual challenges — through a parking lot and into the woods? This isn’t reality.
As nervous as I was, I decided to improvise. Instead of starting as planned, I spoke about the impracticalities and dangers of most of the evacuation plans that well-intentioned officials and their expensive consultants have devised for children in public schools, including students with profound disabilities. As I finished improvising, I said: “They think they know, but they don’t know. They don’t know.”
Then I continued with my prepared speech. At one point I repeated the old saw: “It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” That strategy of doing nothing, of changing nothing, perpetuates the murders of our children.
Doing nothing means that it is just a matter of time until your community experiences this tragedy, anger and pain.
Doing nothing means forever scarring the parents, brothers, sisters, loved ones and communities of those lost in these senseless slaughters.
We refuse to do nothing. This cannot go on any longer.
How can a person listen to the testimony of Dr. Roy Guerrero, a pediatrician at Uvalde Memorial Hospital in Texas, and not be moved to do something? Dr. Guerrero testified before members of Congress that two children he worked on after the massacre at Robb Elementary School last month were pulverized and decapitated. How does this not move a human being? Something is wrong here. We are doing something wrong.
By marching and rallying across the nation, we will win the day. We will not shut up about preventing gun violence. We will not fall for our opponents’ distracting tactics. We will not back down. We. Will. Win. The. Day.
Inspiration from a Parent
While listening to the speakers who came after me, I turned my head and saw a mother with an orange shirt on, together with a child I assumed was her son. I smiled and nodded. She smiled back and said, “I wanted to thank you.” I stepped closer, saying, “This was an honor.” She replied, “This is my son; his brother is at home today and has autism. What you said in your speech about special education, and special education classrooms, meant the world to me — and not just to me.”
Now pointing to her son, who was tucked firmly under her right arm, she added: “To my son as well.” She expressed her thanks again. Her son looked up and thanked me, too. The sincerity in their voices and their eyes was clear. This was a visceral moment.
I knew immediately why she was thanking me. It wasn’t because I had said something so profound. It was simply because special education and students in special ed are not talked about. Her son and students in special ed classrooms are often left out of the conversation or sadly glossed over.
Wow! Having that brief exchange with them was overwhelming. It was a moment I will take with me forever. I had to fight back tears. I knew that this parent, during that speech, felt heard and valued. Someone was speaking for her son. It was an incredible feeling that I will never, ever forget.
A little while later, a group of school paraprofessionals and other support staff approached me. They said how much they appreciated hearing from support staff at this event. They, too, felt heard. They, too, felt valued.
Again, wow! Another case of the tears starting to well up.
Special Ed and Mental Health
During my lengthy drive home, I thought about that mother and son and how much they touched me and will remain with me. I thought about other conversations I have had with parents about their children in special education.
I have to admit: I regret not saying during my improvisation that in 1997, then-Gov. John Engler closed 16 state mental health hospitals. This action, prompted at the federal level, removed malfunctioning mental institutions but thrust all those patients into community care, which was neither equipped nor funded to handle them. This took away a greatly needed resource for those patients and their families. It was an incredibly sad moment.
Since then, so many parents — in particular, special education parents — have been pleading for more beds to be made available for their children. Some young people are a danger to themselves and others.
I remember how a mother once recounted to another staff member and me that she took her son to the hospital and refused to take him back home. If this is abandonment, she told them, then arrest me: “I can’t do it anymore. He needs more help than I can provide right now."
So many parents are screaming that they need help: more intensive treatment, more facilities and better pay for home trainers, the support staff who make home visits to help with speech, occupational therapy and family engagement.
I wish I had told that story. Mental health support and availability of beds in psychiatric facilities are relevant to students today — and can be related to gun violence.
It is great that now, finally, legislators are finding money to address mental health. Having better access to these services will be wonderful, but having a team meet about a student once a week is sometimes not enough. Sometimes what is needed is a different environment and a holistic team approach.
Mental health issues are not the sole reasons why these tragic incidents occur, but providing more support and being mindful of the caseloads of school mental health staff can go a long way toward helping our students. So can firearm age restrictions, red-flag laws and making sure guns are securely and safely stored at home.
And when planning for evacuations in violent situations, school officials need to remember their special ed students. These plans need to be real, actionable and take into consideration both teachers and support staff.
So, for that mother and son at the March for Our Lives rally, who I will forever carry with me, and for all students, their caregivers and their communities: Let’s do something that will create real change on gun violence. It can be done. This can be achieved.
About the Author
Jeff Whittle is the immediate past president of the Macomb (Mich.) Intermediate School District Federation of Paraprofessionals. He also is a vice president of AFT Michigan and serves on a national union board, the AFT PSRP program and policy council.
The American Federation of Teachers was formed by teachers more than 100 years ago and is now a 1.7 million-member union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and o