I have been writing a lot lately about language, disability, and violence - especially police violence. Here's a CNN piece for example. But today I want to shift my attention to a case in Florida:

One of my concerns with the language about disability and violence, whether domestic, in institutions, or in public, is an easy tendency to link the violent outcome to the disability, rather than focusing on the perpetrator of the violence. Such rhetoric doesn't tend, or in I think intend, to excuse the violence, but it does suggest that disability is a mitigating circumstance.

And I'm sure sometimes it is. Sometimes, people who would not otherwise be violent, find themselves unable to respond to a particularly difficult situation, so act badly. But that's an explanation, not a mitigation.

On Monday, a story came up about a boy with Down Syndrome who was dragged across the floor by a principal of a school for children with special needs in Florida.

Here's what happened:

“The child was defiant,” said Lt. Adam Militello with the Neptune Beach Police Department. “He was not getting up from the ground and the principal pulled him across the floor, just under 30 feet, some of it unfortunately over concrete and over two door thresholds.”
Cesar Suarez remembers picking his child up from school that day. And he couldn’t believe his eyes.
You could imagine, when I saw his hand like that and his rib cage I said ‘Jesus Christ this is criminal,’” Cesar Suarez said. “‘What did you do to my baby?’ The only thing she could say is ‘I’m deeply sorry.’”
He says New Leaf Principal, Ronda McDonald, has apologized several times, sending cards and emails.
Here's what I think happened - I think McDonald just snapped. She was frustrated at the boy who wouldn't get up, and she lost it. I think she's deeply ashamed.

I think she and the district will be sued.

I think she should be charged with child abuse.

I think she should lose her job.

I'm sorry about all three of these things. As a parent, I know what it's like to be so frustrated that you can feel the anger emotions roaring through your body. It happens to me. Sometimes I yell. I'm not proud of those times. Sometimes I just walk away and breathe for a few moments. I'm very proud of those times. Getting frustrated is normal. Getting physical is criminal.

But earlier in the article is a line that concerns me. It's paraphrasing the grandmother. It reads: "She said that as a child with Down Syndrome, he sometimes throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up."

I read this sentence as explanatory, and I don't blame the grandmother, but the journalist for writing it this way. It suggests that because he has DS, he throws himself to the ground and refuses to get up. My son does this. It's a passive resistance strategy learned by kids with limited verbal skills. My problem is that the piece links this behavior to the violent response by the principal, as if that explains it (if not forgives it).

In fact, the real issue here is not the flinging to the ground. The real issue is communication. Both of my kids sometimes fling themselves to the ground and refuse to get up, but with my daughter, I know she understands me when I verbally engage. I don't know if my son understands me, so I have to engage with words, tone, and touch - sometimes soft, and sometimes, yes, I pick him up (if say it's in the middle of the street - which has happened). I'm just concerned with this language that makes disability causal.

I've done a lot of writing on DailyKOS, my blog, and for national media, on the Ethan Saylor case (again, here's that CNN article, and another from The Nation), a man with Down syndrome who died in police custody. Many of the reports on Ethan Saylor's death, especially in the first few months, had this kind of language - so that's the stakes. Reporting and statements from organizations linked his broken throat to his Down syndrome. Such language implied that Ethan died not because of police brutality, but because the police did everything right and his Down Syndrome asphyxiated him. That's not what the pathology seemed to show. That kind of thinking has led to a lack of investigation, a lack of justice.

Finally - For people who read me regularly, you'll know I've been talking a lot about a cult of compliance. This is my meta-term for all the ways in which creeping authoritarianism and the criminalization of non-compliance have entered our culture. I've mainly been focused on law enforcement, but the pattern seems to extend here.

The principal, authority figure, is being defied, so she decides instead of investing patience in the situation, she'll just react physically. That's what a cult of compliance looks like.

What do you think?

Cross-posted and edited from my blog (updates daily): How Did We Get Into This Mess?

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