The Miseducation of Wesley Armstrong

In the world of special ed schools in Broward County, drugs and tough love are the order of the day -- and academics are beside the point

With 11 years in SED programs, Benson says he's heard criticisms like the ones being leveled by Armstrong before. But he insists that the root problem in these cases is that the student or the parent, or both, simply refuses to try to succeed at Sunset. "For students to be successful, they have to have a willingness to learn," he stresses. "They must have the skills necessary to learn, and they must deal with the emotional disorders that brought them here. If a child is hurting, he can't learn."

Nothing is more important, he stresses, than the parental "buy-in." If the parent doesn't believe in the school, then the child likely won't get much out of it. "And you have to understand that a lot of our parents come from dysfunctional places themselves." The bottom line, he says, is that parents are often in denial about their child's problem. In these cases it becomes a power struggle between the kid and the school or, worse, between the entire family and the school. "They don't want to face what their issue is; it's painful for them," Benson says.Armstrong counters that she did believe in Sunset at first. It was she, after all, who instigated the process that sent Wesley there. But now she wants him out. She's wanted him out, off and on, since that first arrest, only two weeks after Wesley enrolled. The reason she's been unable to get him out is simple: The school doesn't want to let him go. The truth is that, once the SED label is applied to a child, it's very difficult to remove, especially in Wesley's case, because his conduct and grades have plummeted at Sunset.

Armstrong says she's tried to convince principals at nearby schools to accept Wesley, but they won't because of his record at Sunset.

At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
Sherri Cohen
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.

Benson says that Armstrong simply needs to schedule a meeting with school officials to talk. But Armstrong says she's had numerous meetings with school officials, and they simply won't consider allowing Wesley to leave the school, claiming that he won't be able to function elsewhere. Armstrong says she knows he's not ready for a regular classroom; she just wants him to be in one of the special classrooms for "emotionally handicapped" students in a mainstream school.

Armstrong is left with only one option: due process. It's the system whereby a parent takes his or her grievance to the state, which then appoints a hearing officer, who makes a decision on the matter. But Armstrong is reluctant to initiate this process. For one thing she'll have to hire an attorney, which will be costly, and she figures the school board will win any mediation process anyway. The board has Wesley's file at Sunset that shows he's been a disaster there, after all.

UF's Professor Smith says due process should be avoided if at all possible. "It's a nasty process that pits the parent against the school board," he says. "Sometimes it works for parents, but often it's not good for anybody."

Armstrong is also mulling other options, like home schooling. Anything, she says, to try to save her son from a school she believes is destroying him.

She fears it may already be too late.

"This kid is lost because they have buried him in paperwork and documentation at that school," she says. "I can't let them do this to Wesley. Not while I'm alive. But I'm not blinded to Wesley's problems. Now it's gone so far that Wesley is the only one now who can help Wesley. I just hope a light comes on in his head and he turns himself around."

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