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Insights Insights
| 2 minutes read

Convicted Criminal Claims School Is Responsible for His Crime

A new complaint against a school in Florida presents a theory that has left me bewildered. A high school student last year attacked a teacher's aide, and a video of the incident quickly went viral. The student pled guilty to aggravated battery and is awaiting sentencing.

In the meantime, his lawyer has filed a complaint against his school with the Florida Department of Education, seeking a hearing, compensatory education, wrap-around services, and “any other relief the court deems just and equitable.” In making the argument that the school system failed the student, who had diagnoses of autism and behavioral disorders, the complaint makes him sound like he had no agency or responsibility for controlling himself. The complaint identifies numerous times that the student acted aggressively, and in each instance, finds a way to blame the school:

  • The school knew that the student had been in a residential placement, and had attempted to assault staff or students on at least six occasions. According to the complaint, “It is unclear why [the school system] did not place him in a more restrictive environment.”
  • Once he started school, he was almost immediately suspended for threats against students and pushing an adult aide to the floor. According to the complaint, “B.D. could have and should have received direct instruction on how to problem solve and express himself in a manner that is appropriate and which followed social norms.”
  • The student frequently spit at people when he was angry. According to the complaint, “All behavior is communication . . . . [The student] was never provided any direct instruction or effective supports and services to replace the spitting with a socially appropriate means to express his frustration and anger.”

The complaint goes on in that vein, and then summarizes with the claim that “[h]ad these issues been addressed in real time, B.D. would not have harmed the paraprofessional and would not have been arrested and facing significant time incarcerated.” In other words, the student had no free will, and the school's responsibility was similar to that of a car mechanic – adjust the cogs and wheels until the machine runs the way we want it to.

I understand why the student's lawyer would draft a complaint that treats him as a blank slate and victim. That view of students, however, simply ignores the reality of human nature. Even minors with profound emotional and physical disabilities are capable of making choices. We have to give them the dignity of honoring those choices, including letting them live with the real-life consequences of those choices. Treating them as the perpetual victims of other people's choices does not benefit either them or their peers.

That viewpoint also holds schools and other youth-serving organizations to a standard that no one can meet. Working with young people is not like tuning an engine or baking a cake. We cannot start with 3 parts patience, add 2 measures of structure and 4 units of progressive discipline, bake for 3 weeks in a special ed class, and end up with a model student. Children from their earliest years have agency and the ability to make decisions. We can increase the odds of their making good decisions by following evidence-based methods of nudging, encouraging, nagging, and motivating, but we cannot force them to make good decisions. Here's hoping the Florida Department of Education recognizes that reality.

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"Had these issues been addressed in real-time, [Depa] would not have harmed the paraprofessional and would not have been arrested and facing significant time incarcerated," the complaint reads.


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