Join Isabel Romero as she shares her journey in health, fitness and mental wellness. Her goal is to serve as an inspiration to others by helping all her readers achieve their personal best.
This is going to be one of the longest and hardest posts I ever write…and the tears are streaming down my face before I even begin. Many people who have followed me for the past year or two know the dramatic changes that have occurred in my life. I have worked to improve not only my once broken spirit, but also my body, by trying to eat better, and implementing a lot more physical exercise, yoga and meditating into my routine. Gaining strength, happiness and inner peace has allowed me to help so many people who have turned to me for guidance in their lives, which in turned has helped me grow personally as well. Whereas once I was very reactionary and admit that I probably created several “stories” in my head of things that did not exist, but were rather, my perception, I have now found clarity in my life. I have felt centered and strong and balanced. Until now. The past two months, my life has been shaken to the core.
My daughter, Catalina, has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She was diagnosed almost 4 years ago when she was 2 years old. When first diagnosed, Catalina was completely non-verbal, lacked eye contact, engaged in self-mutilating behaviors such as continuously biting herself until the point of bleeding and banging her head violently against the walls and marble floors, had severe tantrums multiple times per day, and suffered from a major sensory processing disorder. For a while, her hands would have to be bandaged up to prevent her from continuously trying to rip her skin off with her teeth. She could not be bathed, as the feeling of water was unbearable for her. She could not ever be dressed without a struggle, because the touch of any sleeves on her arms would send her through the roof. We could not take her outside on very sunny days because everything was always “too bright”. Every sound was piercing for her, including the sound of the air conditioner running in the car or even an electric toothbrush.
From March through December of 2013, I immersed Catalina in very aggressive early-intervention therapy, both through the Florida Early Steps program and through private services. Her routine consisted of 6 therapists totaling 27 hours per week in areas of Applied Behavioral Analysis, Speech and Occupational Therapies. In January of 2014, the state assigned Catalina to an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program within a “typical” public school. Her first three years of attendance were a success. When any issues arose, Catalina was immediately redirected, and potential problems were diffused before allowing anything to escalate. These teachers and their paraprofessionals were exceptional in helping my daughter succeed.
Because Catalina has a documented very significant history of difficulty with change and transitions (as is very common with most ASD children), at the end of the 2015-16 school year, Catalina’s dad and I met with school officials to discuss what comes next for Catalina once leaving preschool since there were obvious reasons for concern. Catalina does not belong in a cluster setting, as her cognitive and language abilities are very advanced and she scored in the 99th percentile overall when compared to her neurotypical counterparts. Intellectually, she is gifted. All parties were in agreement that she would need to be in a supported classroom due to the additional demands of kindergarten along with the huge transition of leaving the teacher she had been with for 2 years. Unfortunately, the administration of both the school and the ESE program changed over the summer, and somehow, Catalina fell through the cracks and was not given the support that she required at the beginning of this school year.
Although my daughter has made tremendous strides since her original diagnosis, she does retain some characteristics which are common in several high functioning ASD children which include problems with sensory processing, difficulties with self-regulation in loud or crowded environments, poor understanding of consequences of her behavior, and vulnerability to stress. Although her progress the past 3 and half years is remarkable, Catalina was set up to fail this year by her school’s administration by placing her in a mainstream classroom with insufficient supports and by her teacher who was unwilling to meet her needs.
Catalina has been pretty much given free reign for most of this school year to behave in whichever manner she pleases. The school has allowed her to elope on several occasions, even running out into the parking lot, and trashing the classroom on a couple occasions, while the administration sits idly by, just watching, claiming “we can’t do anything else, we can’t touch her.” A low point was reached when I was called in to the school one day, and to my complete shock, I ran into the classroom to see my daughter eating candy off the floor like an animal, while two members of the administration just sat there across the room watching. Catalina is not an animal; she is a human being- a child- and should be treated as such.
On September 21st, 2016, after several weeks of deteriorating due to lack of support and treating her like a misfit, Catalina was unjustifiably suspended for having a disability in a classroom where she was not given the appropriate help. Doing so was as contemptible as suspending a paralyzed child because he cannot climb up, unassisted, to his classroom on the second floor. The amount of excuses and stories provided by staff and administration was exhausting. Somewhere along the line, Catalina was very unfairly labeled, punished for having Autism and simply written off. It was a horrific form of discrimination. My daughter was BULLIED.
A week and half ago, Catalina’s teacher quit because she could not handle the fact that my autistic imperfect daughter had been inserted into her perfect classroom world, and the school was not providing enough support to her either. The wrath that was unleashed by the parents of the students in the class was more hurtful than any human being could ever imagine. Extremely angry parents confronted me about my “evil child”, claiming that it was her fault that their “perfect teacher” quit. These parents were lined up in the administrative offices, all supporting each other’s efforts of getting my disabled child kicked out of school. The Broward County school board officials were called in to hold meetings with the parents of the other children. People in the community who are not even affiliated with the school started calling me and asking me what was going on at the school with Catalina. The news spread like wildfire, which was both shocking and heart breaking. One after another, Catalina’s RSVPs for her birthday party, started switching from Yes’ to No’s. Every single minute of it, my spirit shattered a little more. Some of the parents in the classroom who were my “friends” on Facebook started unfriending me. Catalina became depressed and cried that none of her friends like her anymore—she said that one friend told her they can no longer do playdates with her…and another friend said “my mommy doesn’t want me talking to you anymore”. These kids are 5 years old. And their parents are poisoning them. They are training their 5-year-old children to be bullies. And in this instance, my daughter is the victim.
I have tried so hard these past two months to maintain my inner balance…my inner calm… my true sense of self and happiness. I have tried to be non-reactionary and non-judgmental, despite the fact that I knew things that nobody else knew about the situation. I have tried to stay true to my inner good spirit and soul, because I am a good person. I have tried to remain the “bigger person” despite the fact that several people in my life have told me for the past 2 months that I should go after the school with a vengeance and make them pay for what they have done to my daughter. I have stayed quiet and peaceful. Until now. One thing this situation has taught me is that there is a fine line between being non-reactionary and being non-responsive. I have already been criticized for not being reactionary enough, but I will still not react in an irrational way. But the one thing that I now will do is respond.
My daughter has been unjustifiably targeted long enough. What the other parents don’t know is that other teachers in the school have now come forward and contacted me to tell me that their perfect teacher was moaning and complaining about the fact that she has an Autistic child in her classroom before the year even began. What the other parents don’t know is that at Catalina’s IEP, the teacher sat across the table from me, and when I asked her if she could please stop crying every day in front of the students and their parents (because it was making the situation much worse), her response was “well I’m sorry that I’m not a robot and that I’m a human being. So if I see my classroom being destroyed and I’ve spent hundreds of dollars to make it nice and your daughter destroys it, it’s a natural reaction for me to be upset and cry”… to which I could not even speak from my shock, and to which Catalina’s father looked at me and said “Did that really just come out of her mouth?”. What the other parents don’t know is that parents of 2 other children in that classroom have told me of different incidents that they witnessed while volunteering where my daughter was being mistreated by the teacher and the administration. What the other parents don’t know is that I have been told completely false stories of supposed occurrences involving my daughter which I have several witnesses at the school telling me that these individuals flat out lied and made these stories up. What the other parents don’t know is that I have written several emails to the school administration for help, all requests which have been ignored. What the other parents don’t know is that I have now learned from someone “close” to the teacher that she was pushing Catalina’s buttons all the time on purpose, to trigger these events, in hopes that we would feel so overwhelmed that we would voluntarily leave. What the other parents don’t know is that one day I walked into the classroom without the teacher seeing me because a student opened the door, and I saw Catalina sitting on the rug during reading time….and when she sat on her plastic book bin, the teacher very cruelly and condescendingly said “I paid money for that, and I won’t let you destroy it! Bring it to me and go sit on your beanbag until you are ready to be good”…which left me in so much shock and pain that I removed Catalina early from school that day. What the other parents don’t know is that when I sent out an Evite to the whole class for Catalina’s birthday party, I was contacted by a parent who was on the class list to tell me that her daughter was no longer part of the class. When I asked her why, she told me that her daughter had been bullied by a couple students in the classroom and that when she set up a time to talk to the teacher about it, this perfect teacher “completely went off” on her, so she turned to the administration, who just swept it under the carpet. She pulled her daughter from the school the very next day. What the other parents don’t know is that I sent warning to the school on days which I knew that Catalina needed quiet time for decompression, and the teacher and assistant decided to ignore the warnings and push her further to make her explode and have the other kids be scared of her. What the other parents don’t know is that my 5-year-old came home twice this year, once with a black eye, and once with a huge hematoma lump on her head, both times in which the school administration claimed to have hurt her by “accident” …both times in which I took her straight to her pediatrician to get checked and documented. The administration, the teacher, and the parents have spent almost the entire year bullying my Autistic daughter because she is different…. because they don’t want an imperfect child in their perfect world.
What the world doesn’t know is that ever since the “perfect teacher” quit and blamed Catalina, the classroom has gone from 18 students to 7 students. What the world doesn’t know is that I have been contacted by several parents to tell me that their children are waking up at night, screaming and mortified that they need to go to their “safe zone”…they all say they love Catalina and are not scared of her… but that they have now been conditioned to be scared of her by the school since they would very strategically escalate every situation in an attempt to discriminate against my disabled child. What the world doesn’t know is that my other two children, ages 4 and 7 are neurotypical, and have witnessed everything that has happened for months and have been deeply affected by it in countless ways. What the world doesn’t know is that my 4-year-old daughter frequently asks me “mommy, why are the hurting my sister? She is different because she is Autistic, but mommy, I love her! Why can’t they just be nice to her and love her just the way she is?” What the world doesn’t know is that my 7-year-old son has grown up so fast due to this whole situation, and has laid with me on a few nights while I cry myself to sleep, just quietly saying “it’s okay mommy, it will be okay, Catalina will be okay, I will help you.”
I am done. For the life of me, no matter how much I have learned the past two years about personal growth, inner balance, quieting the chatter of the world, finding peace…nothing could have possibly prepared me for this. It has been the epitome of cruelty, discrimination, harassment and bullying. And it has all been targeted towards a disabled child. Catalina did not choose to have ASD. She is brilliant and beautiful…loving and gentle…funny and sweet. Not a single person who actually knows her would disagree with any of those statements. Yet she has been targeted and set up to fail because she is different. And no matter which way you slice it, apparently “different” scares people. The most insane part of this whole situation is that it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So many people have treated her like an outcast, like a bad kid, like she is lesser-than and not good enough, that she has actually started to display more behavioral problems which all point to self-preservation. She is acutely aware of what is going on and is now becoming more aggressive to defend herself against these attacks.
I am blessed that there are fortunately a few parents who have now become extremely supportive of Catalina, especially in defending her and pushing the school to help her get the support she needs (2 sets of parents have been on her side since the beginning–they have been my angels). I am blessed that now the School Board has become involved and that the administration of the school is finally trying to “do the right thing” in finding her support. However, there has already been so much damage done on so many levels, that it feels like way too little, way too late.
Unfortunately, bullying and discrimination happen constantly, every day, everywhere. I myself experienced it at a very young age. Although I only weigh 100lbs now at the age of 40, I probably weighed about 115 when I was in 5th grade. You cannot even imagine how many days I came home crying from school because somebody had made me feel fat. I grew so unhappy with myself that by 7th grade, I developed somewhat of an eating disorder and stopped eating, losing 30 lbs in just a few months. The wounds that children develop when they are made to feel lesser-than are quite often left as permanent scars. How does this happen? Why do people gain any satisfaction out of hurting others? It is something I will never understand, especially the discrimination against a disabled child. It is SENSELESS.
Last year, I set up a non-profit organization called The Educating Angels Foundation in memory of Catalina’s first ESE teacher (at this very school) who tragically died while giving birth to her 4th child. She was an amazing woman and would never have allowed any of this to happen to any child. Although the original intention of the foundation was to provide therapy for autistic children, I will now be taking the focus in a different direction. I will be taking all the necessary steps to make sure that the Educating Angels Foundation raises awareness and provides support groups for Autistic children being bullied in schools. The more we isolate children with Autism and treat them poorly, the more aggressive they will become. This could be detrimental to society as a whole. The kind of behavior that my child has been exposed to this year is beyond unacceptable. It is frightening that the discrimination of certain parents and even teachers will carry on to their children who will learn that it’s okay to bully kids who are disabled or different…those who need love instead of being the targets of so much hate. It is my intent to educate people—from teachers to parents to students—so that there is a lot more love and acceptance rather than hate and discrimination. Everyone will gain from becoming more aware. Even if I prevent only a few Autistic children from having to go through what my daughter has experienced this year, and prevent another family from going through what we have had to go through, it will all be worth it.
Love, peace, health and happiness,