Written by Elena Croy
Over a year ago I promised you a compelling post centered around forgiving the woman who abused my daughter. The number of times I’ve tried to put my thoughts down on the page and found myself overwhelmed with grief is many, and I thank you for your patience while I’ve been exploring our complex encounter with systemic ableism. I’ve always wondered about family members of victims you see on the news, publicly announcing how they’ve forgiven the individual who harmed their loved ones, even as they stand outside of a courtroom or in front of a memorial with tears streaming down their cheeks. I’ve wondered what kind of show they’re putting on, what sort of game they’ve played inside their heads in order to speak with such conviction. Now I understand that it’s not a game. Forgiveness is the soul’s mechanism for preservation. Forgiveness is the ability to detach from something corrosive so that you can make space for something softer. Forgiveness balances delicately on the event horizon of the darkest moment you’ve ever faced. Forgiving my daughter’s preschool teacher for the trauma she inflicted on her was never my choice, and I don’t believe the forgiveness came for free or without consequences of its own. This is not a story of selflessness, but one of discovery. The headlining moment of my daughter’s abuse was that she was mechanically restrained with packing tape, but there are other pieces of the story that we don’t often talk about. She was withholding her urine; stopped eating and drinking during the school day; learned to elope; had a full-blown panic attack in my arms; and consistently had red marks under the stainless steel portion of her medical ID bracelet from what I now understand was the teacher grabbing her so tightly that she was piercing my baby girl’s sweet little wrist, knowingly or unknowingly conditioning my daughter to tolerate mistreatment. Despite all of this, on December 7, 2020, the single point I knew for certain was that my Hope had been taped and couldn’t properly walk. It wasn’t until the weeks and months rolled on that I began to accurately attribute her newly developed behaviors to a classroom trauma response, not some manifestation of her having an intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD). I shared in “Part 1: Just the Facts”that I fell into a deep internet rabbit hole during the week between Hope being taped and our reporting it to the school. One place I ventured through was via a Google search that read something like “what do I do if my daughter was taped at school?” and up popped a story of an 8-year-old student with Down syndrome whose shoes were duct taped to her legs in the exact same manner that my daughter’s had been taped to hers. When the parents met her off the bus, they immediately went to the school and demanded answers. The police were involved.
Their local news station picked up the story. The school fired the teacher. This took place in Indiana only years prior and the similarities were frightening, save for one stark contrast: I was non-confrontational.
I think often, probably too often, about whether I should have called the police that day, but I know why I didn’t. I had imagined how the story would play out, and I knew I could not be responsible for this teacher, a grandmother, whose husband had a health condition that put him at high-risk for COVID-19 complications (remember, this was 2020), to face legal consequences so late in life. She played roulette with our wellbeings, but I did not have the capacity to play roulette with hers. And I genuinely believed at the time that our school district would do right by its disabled preschoolers. I was sorely mistaken. The world started to get a little darker. The confusion and guilt set in. The nightmares began. Seeing the teacher brought physical panic to my body. I continued to research and seek answers, but we were all healing at the same time and there was nobody protecting the greater community while we were protecting our daughter. We were merely a sad story among countless sad stories about children with disabilities who face discrimination and mistreatment, their parents mislabeled as heroes for advocating for their rights, standing bare and alone on a humiliating stage of misplaced inspiration, while the state of New Jersey, the teachers union, and our own home district brushed it all under the rug. This teacher did not operate in a vacuum, and although she planned and executed the taping, our district failed her professional needs as a special education teacher, presumably trained in the 1970s and in desperate need of professional development to support the evolving student learning profiles in her classroom, and her mental health needs as a human being and staff member navigating the pandemic. And it’s those last points where I settled into empathy: We were all victims of a broken system, designed for the able-bodied male, with my daughter’s rights attached flimsily along its tattered margins. I thought for sure that one day we would receive an apology from the teacher, but one never came, and I’ve lost faith that one ever will. Through forgiveness I have been able to let go of that yearning and cut loose the negativity that bonded my beautiful family to this relatively short, albeit life-altering, period during which our family’s life course overlapped with whatever pain the teacher was struggling to manage. Administrators told me over and over again that I needed to “move forward” from the incident. What they really wanted me to do was turn my back to the problems and move not forward, but remain stagnant and complicit. So my husband and I made the decision to endure the difficult work necessary to make lasting change that we pray will help not only our daughter, but other children with I/DD in our district and throughout the state. I’ll update you soon on the progress we’ve made and what work remains as a community. There is grave importance to dismantling the barriers meticulously maintained by our ableist leaders, and every effort, large or small, matters deeply.