Alleged Special Ed Abuse and the Court of Public Opinion

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I already had a spitfire six-year-old daughter and a boisterous four-year-old autistic son when my youngest, Mali, was born. Though I had scoffed at family and friends who suggested enlisting extra hands when our herd expanded, it was soon clear that I could really use some backup. That was when Alexia Bogdis entered our lives. She became one of Leo's best friends. She worked with him for almost three years -- his most difficult years. She brought our home life out of crisis -- like a Mary Poppins, but for an autism family.

New Preschool ClassYou may wonder why I'm using Alexia's real name, instead of protecting her privacy with "Therapist X" or "Babysitter X" as is my usual blogging practice for the many people who have worked with Leo. But Alexia no longer has the privilege of privacy -- last week, she was charged with mistreating children in our school district's early intervention preschool.

While it was shocking to hear about the charges, I understand completely why the matter proceeded as it has. Our children's safety should always be our top priority, and if classroom abuse is reported, what happened to Alexia is the procedure that must and should be followed. We cannot knowingly expose our children to risk.

We can, however, remain aware that allegations are not verdicts -- as difficult as maintaining that awareness is, especially when headline writers are forced to prioritize sensationalism over fairness, and when mugshots of people who have yet to see their day in court are nevertheless made available to news services. Alexia's story spread at near-viral speed from Internet news services to the special needs email lists and blogs in my communities.

I spoke up about the difference between allegations and verdicts whenever the story hit my inbox or my screen, and some folks appreciated the reminder. I did not speculate about the charges -- nor will I here -- because I did not visit the class during the time frame in question, and I have not spoken with Alexia about the allegations. This is a legal matter now, so I can only comment on that which I have personally observed.

But I can vouch for her character. And here's what I've personally witnessed, and documented: Every one of my friends and family members is as shocked by the allegations as I am. We have known Alexia for seven years; we know she is the sort of person who literally gives others the shirt off her back. We've seen her set aside her own vacations and weekends to accompany Leo to events and on family trips that would otherwise be un-doable. We know she was there for him when he struggled with self-care hiccups. When he was trying so hard to make sense of the world and sometimes just couldn't, despite his and all our best efforts -- and kept lashing out at it, and us, instead.

I can also tell you that the allegations are now affecting more than just Alexia and her class. Due to national and state child welfare regulations regarding Mandated Reporters -- people within the district who are legally obligated to report child abuse -- several other special ed department folks have been placed on administrative leave. They will stay there until it is determined what exactly happened and whether or not said people had any awareness of Alexia's alleged incidences. These are good people who serve critical roles, and we have to remember that their being placed on leave is a matter of procedure -- again, to do everything possible to protect students -- rather than evidence of wrongdoing. Those administrative leave changes have the potential to disrupt learning, IEP, placements, and classroom for every child who receives special education services from our districts, which leaves me even more upset: those changes could possibly circle around and affect Leo.

But again, I understand why people -- especially parents, as I am one -- get so upset when stories like Alexia's allegations emerge. I seethe with fire and vengeance when my children are treated badly -- in fact my story in the 2010 book My Baby Rides the Short Bus is partially a big FU to the teacher and school that banned Leo from recess when he was a kindergartener. It's easy for parents to get paranoid, start thinking mistreatment of special education kids happens all the time. We need to keep in mind what an anonymous commenter wrote on the recent CafeMom post It's Time to Stop Teacher Abuse of Autistic Kids:

"Please understand these cases are few and far between. I am a special education teacher and I work with autistic kids and I know this doesn't happen in my district. Please stop fear mongering and making teachers looks like monsters. 99% of us are good people who want the best for all kids."

It would be easy to keep silent about Alexia's story, to distance my family from it -- but it would also be wrong, and cowardly. I owe Alexia too much not to speak up about the good I've seen her do, and the years she spent helping my family and my son, even when it wasn't easy at all. While our first obligation should absolutely be to protect our children -- especially our children with communication special needs -- I can only remind you that Alexia has been charged, not convicted, and that her case has yet to be heard. She deserves to have a positive testimonial balance out the negative headlines and mug shots that now pop up whenever her name is Googled.

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa is far too distressed right now to think up quips for ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, or Squidalicious.com.

Photo Credit: usembassymanila.

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