School Talk

Stickers on Kids with Special Needs? Despite Resignation, Parents Still Demanding Information and a Better Apology

It’s not surprising that parents and education advocates have reacted with disbelief at the decision by the now former assistant superintendent to place color coded stickers on the backs of certain SAND Elementary students. Chris Hempel, second in charge of the district of Hartford, Connecticut, erred in judgement when he decided to label kids with stickers as part of a training exercise for principals and other city educators about the complex issue of differentiation in the classroom.  

On November 9th, as part of a district training session on how teachers can tailor their instruction to meet students’ different learning needs, students in special education had round green stickers placed on them, while those who are English language learners were identified with yellow dots, the school system has acknowledged. (Hartford Courant, Nov. 30)

Surely he had gotten the parents to sign off on this. He didn’t.

Surely he had gotten the approval of the Superintendent. He didn’t.
Surely he (or someone) took the time to have a conversation with each student before placing a color coded sticker on their back during class. No one did that either.
Parent activist and founder of the Connecticut Parents’ Union Gwen Samuel had this to say about the incident.

Educational injustice occurred at Sand Elementary school because the educators and administrators that the parents and students trusted failed to stand up and speak out. It is because of discriminatory instructional practices like this that parents not only demand accountability in every school but we also demand the right to choose the best educational option for our kids.

The parents of SAND Elementary likely find a bit of solace knowing that Assistant Superintendent Chris Hempel has since resigned but as is often the case, many are disheartened and frustrated by the impersonal district speak coming from the administration. And the fact that he’ll be paid his salary of $146,260 through June is rankling them as well.
Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, Hartford’s Superintendent, did confirm during a personnel update that Hempel no longer works for the district but didn’t elaborate, likely because of the required confidentiality of sensitive personnel matters. She had this to say publicly on November 17th:

The personnel matter is concluded, but as I said before, we are committed to the work of equity and cultural competence,” Narvaez said. “We have been since I came to the district. We have regular trainings for our staff and our administrators, so that work certainly will not stop.

Samuel was not satisfied with the district’s internal review of the situation.  “I don’t think the fox should guard the hen house,” she said. 

And she’s smart to be skeptical because this is a school that is 91% low income with 99% students of color. It doesn’t take a genius to know that this would likely never have happened in a school with white, wealthier, and more powerful parents.

Millie Arcinieagas, Hartford parent advocate and executive director of Parent University sums it up this way:  there is a desire for school officials to ‘apologize more.’

I totally get that.

This desire of parents for an apology to feel real is not unique to Hartford or to Connecticut; it’s an area of weakness for countless school districts who inevitably fall short when it comes to showing empathy.  It seems that they’ve let their fear of litigation swallow up their humanity, turning them into seemingly cold beauracrats instead of real people who have devoted their lives to children. The irony is that what they (or those advising them) think is the right PR strategy turns out to be the worst kind of PR.

If given the opportunity to speak to school officials and district administrators, my first question to each of them would be a personal one.

“What if this had happened to your child?”

I’d love for a lawyer to explain to me why more superintendents and district leaders can’t say something like this:

“I’m sorry. As a parent myself, I would be as upset as you are and if I could turn back time and make it so this had never happened, I would. We messed up. And though we can’t make what happened go away, we can give you our word that we will do everything in our power to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. We owe you our best and on that front, we failed.”

Some SAND parents are pursuing further action. In addition to taking the district to task during public comment at recent local and state board of education meetings, one SAND mother has already filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities that named Narvaez, Hempel, and SAND Principal Gerardo Heredia.

Arciniegas has promised “it isn’t going away” and has indicated that parents plan to file a complaint with the state department of education in pursuit of more answers of what exactly happened at their children’s school.

The district of Hartford and districts all over the nation would be well served by putting themselves in the shoes of all the parents they serve and asking themselves every single day, would I accept this for my own child?

If the answer is no, it’s time to make some fast changes.

What do you think?

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