Northport-East Northport Board of Education cut off a 14-year-old boy from
speaking during Monday’s meeting when the teen, who has a form of
high-functioning autism, attempted to express what he felt was unfair treatment
in his classroom due to his disability.
Christian Ranieri held back tears as he left the room after being shut down just a few sentences into his speech, in which he was asking the board to hear him out after he felt he was unfairly suspended for two days from school.
The school board president cited privacy laws in his reasoning for halting Ranieri's speech. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of student education records.
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Ranieri, a freshman at Northport High School, explained that since the beginning of the school year, his individualized education program and behavior intervention plan have not been implemented. After four weeks without it, his parents called meetings with administrative staff members. When his behavior plan was put in place however, it was done incorrectly, Ranieri said, adding that he was refused when he asked to speak to his teacher outside of the classroom about the error. Out of frustration, he said that he raised his voice at the teacher and was suspended from school for two days for the outburst.
Since the incident was not written up in his mandated behavior sheet, and because privacy laws bar school staff members from discussing individual behavioral issues in public, it is unclear what took place that day from the teacher’s perspective.
After the incident last week, Ranieri said he felt discriminated against and that he didn’t want to be labeled as a trouble maker because of his autism – a part of him that he proudly wears on his sleeve as a youth ambassador for the New York State Self-Advocacy Association.
Ranieri explained at the board meeting that when he was a child, he couldn’t speak, but since he can now, he wants to use his voice to be his own advocate.
“When I was five, I cried a lot and would throw myself on the floor when I got frustrated. I am proud to say that now I can speak clearly and to the best of my ability, try to deal with my frustration in words,” he said in his speech.
“I feel like the decision made by the person at Northport High School to suspend me for two days was discriminatory on the part that I have autism and the fact that she thought what happened was not a result of my autism,” he continued, briefly stating that there was a problem with the implementation of his IEP and behavior plan, but omitting any individual names.
That's as far as he got. After a minute into his speech, the board of education president stopped Ranieri, citing privacy laws.
“I understand what you’re saying. I just have to ask you to please understand that boards of education are unable to legally, both on the federal and state level, to discuss student disciplinary actions in public sessions so I would ask you to please be careful in what you’re saying. It is something the board cannot entertain in public session,” Stephen Waldenburg, board of education president, said.
Ranieri continued his speech, pointing out that he was trying to stand up for himself, the way others, such as Rosa Parks did. However, after he asked the board for a different person to be put in charge of implementing his IEP, Waldenburg apologized for having to stop him from speaking and Ranieri was cut off again.
“This entire discussion which involves disciplinary action is totally improper for a public session,” Waldenburg said.
“Let him be heard!” residents shouted from their seats.
Waldenburg said that the “proper audience” for the discussion would be the superintendent. However, the teen’s mother, Carina, said that when she attempted to speak with the superintendent at the school building, she was told that she would have to make an appointment and was asked to leave. Carina sent a letter asking for an appeal of the suspension, but had not received a response from the superintendent, she said.
Superintendent Marylou McDermott said that she and the administration are following the proper protocols.
“I have 10 days to respond in writing,” McDermott said, adding that the family would have to go through “several layers” before the superintendent level. “Now I have received your letter and your letter is under review. We are acting in accordance with the law and matters of student discipline, according to federal and state law, are not to be discussed or mentioned in public,” Superintendent of Schools Marylou McDermott said.
Mark Ranieri, the teen’s father, explained that his son was not looking to have a discussion, but wanted to present his speech to the board.
"I understand your situation, son," Waldenburg said to Ranieri. "But, you have to understand that we are legally limited in what we can discuss in a public session. You are not giving the superintendent an opportunity to discuss a private, personal matter, that should only be discussed not in public session."
Ranieri said he worked on his speech for three hours.
“I feel rejected from being able to speak my mind to a group of people that I hoped would want to listen to me,” he said outside of the board meeting room after he was turned away.
After the incident in school, Renieri and his family created a Facebook page to document the teen’s journey of self-advocacy. So far, the page has garnered 220 fans and continues to grow. A video of Renieri's speech at the board meeting was also uploaded to YouTube where it has more than 1,500 views as of Tuesday evening.
The following is the full speech Renieri had prepared for the meeting, but was barred from reading:
My name is Christian Ranieri and I am a 9th Grader at Northport High School. You should know that I have a developmental disability called Autism.
I have come a long way in life as I could not talk in the beginning but now I am able to express my message to you in words. When I was 5 I cried a lot and would throw myself on the floor when I got frustrated. I am proud to say that now I can speak clearly and to the best of my ability try to deal with my frustration in words.
I feel like the decision made by the person at Northport High School to suspend me for 2 days was discriminatory on the part that I have Autism and the fact that she thought that what had happened was not a result of my Autism. This whole incident happened when I tried self-advocating for myself after my resource room teacher did not implement my IEP and Behavior Intervention Plan. The day before this alleged incident we had a meeting with my mom, my dad, my resource room teacher, the school psychologist, and my assistant principal. At this meeting I told them that my reward system had not been put in place and I had been in school for almost 1 month. Ever since the beginning of High school I have had to self-refer myself to the assistant principal's office because certain teachers would not allow me my accommodated seat on my IEP. In history there have been people who have had to fight for a seat. One that I know of and many of you might know of was named Rosa Parks. At that time, her civil rights did not afford her to sit in the front of a bus. As a result she was arrested for not giving up her seat.
In my case my civil rights give me the opportunity to have a special seat because of my developmental disability and yet I find myself having to fight for it. My parents have explained that you are the ones who decide who manages my IEP, my accommodations, and my behavior intervention plan. The person you chose to do this for me did not do her job and has accused me of intimidating her!
At the beginning of the school year I was excited to go to High School though my mom and dad were a bit nervous about how I would adjust and whether the staff would know how to handle me and my developmental disability. Every day I have a smile on my face because I am excited for a brand new day. Sometimes I can be hard to handle because my brain thinks differently but that does not mean I should be mistreated and dismissed by my teachers. Last May, I participated in my own meeting to describe what I needed to be a successful student at the High School and get my job done with the skills I have. Since then, the office of Developmental disabilities and its Self- Advocacy association has made me Youth Ambassador and has asked me to be a key note (sic) speaker in Albany at the end of October. It makes me very sad that I have come so far and now will have to talk about how my school does not support my plan to succeed. I have spent so much time outside of the classroom trying to explain my accommodations and my plan instead of in my class learning to pass my regents exams.
During the meeting with the person who suspended me, I explained how I tried to talk to the teacher appropriately. I even asked to come outside in the hallway so that I would not disrupt the other students in the classroom. The person who suspended me said she was not aware of that but did not seem to care about what I was saying. She did not seem to care about my IEP or my Behavior Intervention plan and the fact that some teachers were not implementing it. She told me and my parents that at Northport High School what it means to respect adults as my disorder makes it hard for me to understand this I have an intellectual and developmental disability that affects my social thinking. All of this is on my IEP. My parents are always trying to come up with plans for me so that I understand when I should and should not obey adults. Especially, if it can put me in danger. Would all of this be happening to a student with Autism that doesn't speak?
I feel that because I had to face many injustices, it is time for my voice to be heard. For example, in middle school one of my teachers did not let me use my netbook computer that is on my IEP for test corrections because he said that if I used it would be considered "cheating" so I spent over 2 days writing down the corrections even though I cannot really write well for a long period of time because of my issues, but if you give me my laptop I can get the job done! I want people to know that I deserve respect as much as they do. Not because I have a disability but because I am a human just like them.
After I was suspended I began to cry and my parents decided to go straight to the Superintendent's office to talk about our situation. We were told she was in a meeting and my parents and I said we would wait for it to be over in the hallway. After a little while, of sitting outside in the hallway, I told my Mom that I felt like we were at a Sit In. Since I love history, I know all about Sit Ins and how they were used as a protest method. A few minutes later, a security man came to us and asked us to leave. So we did. That was last Monday. Up until today she has never met with us.
I am asking you to investigate my situation and remove the suspension from my record as this suspension might ruin my future and I do not want to be seen as a trouble maker (sic). On Friday, during my resource room, one week after the alleged incident I saw the person who suspended me in the room talking with my teacher. I could not even look at her because I feel very angry about being suspended for self-advocating. How is it fair that I get punished and the teachers don't? Although my parents have told me that I must remain with the same resource room teacher until they can figure a way of getting me out of that classroom, I am here to ask you to please change my situation so I do not have to sit in a room with an adult who thinks that I intimidated her or that I am a trouble maker.
I met with a psychologist at my home and during our conversation I realized that people needed to hear my story and that is why I decided to do this.
The Self-Advocacy Association has taught me one very important thing and that is, "Nothing for me, without me." Thank you for listening to my story.
*This article was originally posted Oct. 8 at 6:50 p.m. It has been updated since for clarification purposes.