Last week, an article from my local newspaper, The Times of Northwest Indiana, received national attention: “Teacher mocks autistic student with ‘most annoying’ award, parent complains.” In this news report and two follow-up articles, education reporter Carley Lanich describes how a fifth grade student with nonverbal autism received a trophy inscribed with “Bailey Preparatory Academy 2018-2019 Most Annoying Male,” and she details the school district’s response to the teachers’ involvement in this unprofessional and unkind act. [To read “Teacher says she’s a scapegoat after student with autism given ‘Most Annoying’ trophy” and to access links to two previous articles on this story, please click here.]
According to The Times, on May 23, 2019, fifth graders from Bailey Preparatory Academy, a public school in Gary, Indiana, celebrated the end of the school year with a luncheon at a restaurant for teachers, students, and students’ families. This event included a “Students’ Choice Awards” ceremony where students chosen by their peers were awarded trophies for various categories. Prior to the awards ceremony, students had been given ballots prepared by two fifth grade teachers with categories and explanations of each award, such as, “Most Positive (always encouraging or motivating others).” Students were to write in the name of a female and male student for each category, and these ballots were returned to the two fifth grade teachers overseeing this event.
When the so-called award for “Most Annoying Male” trophy was given to a boy with autism, his father, Rick Castejon, was shocked but did not want to cause a scene. He explained that his son didn’t understand the meaning of the trophy and was not upset, but as a parent he questioned the school’s judgment in giving an award for this category. Moreover, he noted that another boy, who is not a special education student, received this same designation and was teased by other students when he was called forward to receive his trophy. The next day, the father contacted the school district with his understandable concerns.
Reportedly, the teachers at the awards ceremony told the parents that all of the fifth grade students had voted for the class awards, and the teachers were just there to hand out the trophies. Apparently, they were attempting to protect themselves against any fallout and placing the blame upon the students. However, the father of the boy with autism directly criticized his son’s special education teacher, who handed him the trophy, stating: “You should have protected my son no matter what. Your job should’ve been to say, ‘We’re not going to give this one out.’”
In addition to the traditional positive awards, such as “Most Scholarly,” the teachers included the grammatically incorrect “Most Funniest” and “Most Friendliest” categories on the ballot. Besides the negative “Most Annoying,” the teachers also offered “Most Sleepiest” as a grammatically incorrect and thoughtless choice for those “usually caught trying to take a nap.” Again, these teachers used poor judgment when not considering their students’ difficult home situations that may impair their sleep and make them overly tired at school.
After the initial article about the boy with autism receiving the “Most Annoying” title, this news story received national attention and public outcry for the cruel treatment of this special needs child. Readers insisted that the teachers involved at least be fired and even prosecuted for their actions. The Gary Community School Corporation, already suffering from a reputation as one of the worst school districts in the state of Indiana, immediately attempted damage control. A school spokesperson issued the following statement: “The team is working to ensure that an occurrence of this nature will never happen again.”
Initiating an internal investigation by an education attorney, the school district placed the school principal on administrative leave pending further investigation. Moreover, the special education teacher and the two fifth grade teachers responsible for the ballot and awards have been notified that their teachers’ contracts have been cancelled based upon their “inappropriate behavior” and “poor professional judgment.” In a letter from the principal, she notes the failure of these teachers to be “an acceptable role model” and to treat their students with “dignity and respect” by giving the “inappropriate awards.” The teachers have the right to appeal the decision regarding their dismissal from the district.
Although the principal and two fifth grade teachers have not issued statements to the press, the special education teacher is loudly complaining about her fate. Alexis Anderson-Harper, who has been employed with the Gary schools for fifteen years, claims that she is being unfairly targeted. She states, “I feel like my livelihood is being taken away from me.” In a rather odd analogy, she continues, “You’re playing Russian roulette with my life.”
According to Ms. Anderson-Harper, the fifth grade teachers who organized the awards ceremony are to blame because they created the students’ ballot for the awards. She simply explained the categories to her students and even decided to omit the “Most Athletic” award since none of her students participated in school sports. However, she failed to delete the “Most Annoying” category. She claims that she didn’t realize her student would receive that designation until after his name was read and she handed him the trophy at the ceremony. In her attempt to save her job and her honor, she apparently blames her colleagues and the students, never apologizing for her part in the cruelty to her student, nor expressing regret for not doing something to prevent upsetting his parents.
As a result of the national attention this news story has generated, the family of the boy with autism has received letters of support from around the country and offers of replacement trophies and scholarship funds. However, the boy’s father states that they are only accepting the kind notes they have received and are looking into having donations sent to an autism organization. He explains that he did not want to cause trouble or get teachers fired, but he just wanted someone to be held responsible.
In a society where too many trophies are handed out just for participation to prevent hurt feelings and to promote self-esteem, this story of “awarding” a trophy out of thoughtlessness and perhaps even spite raises righteous indignation. Teachers who demonstrate such poor judgment and lack of compassion should not be working with any children, let alone special needs children, and they deserve to be fired. Whether the student with autism understands the meaning behind the trophy or not, his parents do, and they certainly must be hurt by the actions of these teachers. Moreover, the regular education student who also received the “Most Annoying” designation does understand what it means and had to endure not only the negative label but also the taunting of his peers who voted for him to receive it. Hopefully, this incident will make more people, especially those who work with impressionable children and special needs students, think about how to treat people with compassion and understanding.
“You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” Proverbs 25:22