Monday, February 20, 2017

Betsy DeVos, Lobbying, and the Polarizing Online Political Climate.

Judah and I recently returned from our trip to Washington DC.  We went to lobby for Special Olympics Unified Sports.  It was a very surreal experience for me.  I don't know that I'll ever not think to myself "these people really want to hear what I have to say?"  Nevertheless, I have and will always use every opportunity offered to me to advocate for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Of course, Judah loves to travel and he loves people, so he had a great time!  He has always been along for the ride and rarely misses a beat.  The most go along, get along kid I have ever met.  On top of it all, I am so proud of who he is and for always being himself.  The following are some thoughts I have had over the past week that I needed to jot down for my own mental clarity.

The following picture was posted last week all over Special Olympics' media accounts, including their website.

Yes, that is my little dude shaking hands with newly appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Standing next to her is Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver.  As expected, it caused quite a storm of rants and raves.  I rarely pay attention to political banter on social media, but my little boy is in this picture, so I read quite a bit of the comments.  That was almost a week ago, and the dust has pretty much settled.  To my knowledge there were no negative comments made about my son.  Most of the negativity was aimed at Special Olympics for apparently "taking sides".  So for what it's worth, instead of contributing to the never ending back and forth on social media, I'm just writing my thoughts here for those of you that care or found yourselves on my side of the online universe.

I'll start with some background information that led up to this picture in case you're new to our little world.  If you are new, you can follow this blog all the way back to 6 years ago when I started teaching.  But that's just too adventurous, so I'll sum it up.  If you're family or friend and already know our story, then you can skip ahead to the group picture below.  If you're Betsy DeVos, or one of her staff, please skip ahead as well to the end of this post where I have included a letter to you.

I became a special education teacher and began teaching when my son started kindergarten. I teach a K-2 self-contained class for individuals with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities at G.W. Carver Elementary School, a public school in Yuma, Arizona.  In the six years that my son and I have been at our school, together with our principal and other amazing staff, we have worked diligently toward creating an inclusive environment where all children learn together.  So the technical label “self-contained” that is attached to my class is not all together true.  My students spend large portions of their day with their general education peers.  My son has actually been completely mainstreamed for most of his elementary education.

About four years ago (Spring 2013) we were introduced to Special Olympics through the Young Athletes program.  A fantastic program geared toward the little ones that I teach at school.  It was a no-brainer for me to incorporate the Young Athletes curriculum into my classroom.  From there my involvement as a volunteer with Special Olympics began to pick up momentum.  I started coaching traditional basketball in January 2014 and Judah began participating in traditional athletics (track) that spring.

In August 2014, Special Olympics Arizona sent me to a leadership conference in Phoenix where I learned about Unified Sports.  I was disappointed to find out that Unified Sports was not typically offered at the elementary level and only for high school and beyond.  Together with our River Area director and many other volunteer coaches, we began to change that.  Now our little city in the southwestern most corner of the United States is in our second year of Unified Sports in 26 county wide elementary and middle schools. 

At my public school in particular, Unified Sports tied right in with our inclusive practices and what we were already doing to promote relationships between our students with intellectual disabilities and those without.  Currently, I organize Unified Sports at G.W. Carver Elementary School.  We have 25-30 athletes with intellectual disabilities, and a rotating roster of 40-50 partners without.  We have an amazing list of 7 coaches and over 15 other staff helpers.  Keep in mind that this is just one public school in our county.  There are 25 others that also participate.  If you are at all familiar with Special Olympics Unified Sports, then you will understand that this is truly unique and not going on anywhere else in the United States.  Only in Yuma, Arizona.

For the past 10 years Special Olympics has been sending local athletes, partners, coaches, parents, and staff to Capitol Hill to lobby for funding provided through the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.  This funding is distributed throughout the states that participate in Unified Sports and Healthy Leap / Healthy Athletes.  Each participating state is responsible for sending a team of individuals that represent these programs.  Special Olympics organize meetings with state Senators and Representatives (or their staff) for each respective State on Capitol Hill Day.

This year, Special Olympics Arizona chose my son Judah and I, along with our River Area director, Lisa Ball, and her son Ryan (an elementary Unified partner), and two high school students Krystal Cummings and Kyla Bellville (athlete/partner) from Chandler, Arizona.  Not one of us had any prior experience lobbying.

As a public school teacher, I have my own political opinions that I have largely kept private and off of social media.  I do enjoy discussing politics and religion in person, but never online.  This past election has been especially polarizing.  I have been disheartened by the hatred and slander thrown by both sides.  For the record, I was not in favor of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  Not because I believe she is a bad person (as people have painted her to be), but rather because she doesn’t have experience in public education.  She is a staunch supporter and advocate for charter and private schools.  Again, that does not make her "the enemy", it just means we have someone in charge of our education system that has never really supported it.  Take it for what it's worth, but that's basically why I have not been on her side.

On the evening of Tuesday February 14th Special Olympics hosted a dinner for the 40 states that came to Washington DC to lobby for Unified Sports and Healthy Athletes.  We knew our chairman Tim Shriver would be there to give a speech.  We had no idea, however, that newly appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, would also be in attendance.  There was tension in the air, to be sure.  With the political climate the way it is right now.  Each one of us there that night, no matter what political persuasion, gave her respect and listened to what she had to say.  Afterward, Secretary DeVos and Chairman Shriver mingled about the room and met with people sitting at each table.  Our Arizona team was seated at a table situated more toward the back of the room.  By the time DeVos and Shriver were close to us, they were pretty well done and ready to leave.  As a public school teacher (and probably one of the only few in the room) I already had in mind what I wanted to say to DeVos and was truly hoping to get a minute of her time to do so.  That didn’t happen.  Instead she took time to meet my 11 year old son with Down syndrome, a Unified athlete, and his 9 year old friend Ryan, a Unified partner.  Which brings us to the infamous picture most of you are now familiar with, one of our Special Olympics athletes shaking hands with Secretary DeVos.

In reply to those of you that commented and shared this picture all over social media and abroad I’d like to refer you to this article first and then make a few points:

  1. Special Olympics are a non-partisan organization.  In the weeks leading up to our lobbying, Special Olympics made this very clear.  We were told in writing, email, conference calls, and in person that we are there to represent Special Olympics only, and to never side with or take any political stance otherwise while in DC.  Additionally, Special Olympics serve individuals with intellectual disabilities.  We should all keep in mind that our loved ones with ID are born to families all over the world from every different cultural, political, and religious background.  It benefits no one to take sides within the confines of Special Olympics.
  2. We learned that in the 10 years Special Olympics has been lobbying at Capitol Hill Day; Betsy DeVos is the first Secretary of Education to attend our dinner, though former Secretaries were invited.  That alone speaks volumes.  She made the effort, on Valentines Day nonetheless.
  3. A portion of funding for Unified Sports is provided through the Department of Education.  Regardless of which political party the Secretary of Education is with, it would benefit all involved for the appointed Secretary to attend.  At the very least, they are putting faces and stories to what that funding goes toward.  This is a positive move across the board.
  4. Betsy DeVos made the following statement to us that night: “I am proud to stand beside you as a partner in support of Special Olympics and its Unified Champion Schools, an important program that promotes leadership and empowers students to be agents of change.” You can bet that we need to and will hold her to that. However, if she is in fact trying to take away funding for students with special needs, then that would qualify her as a bully and go against her statement. I am not convinced that she is a bully, but for arguments sake, lets say she is.  As an educator I have to deal with bullying all the time.  I have found the best method to stop bullying is to get the bully involved with the student(s) they are victimizing.  Over the past six years I have witnessed many bullies become friends and advocates for those they bullied.
  5. Before you jump to conclusions and bash me on social media please note that I am a public school teacher and my son, with Down syndrome, has been educated in the public school system for the past 6 years.  I do not side with either popular political party and did not vote for the Trump or Clinton administration in the past election. 
  6. I choose to live my life largely by example.  Doing something goes much further than saying something.  There are a great many things that need to change in our country.  Have we not learned yet that blasting one another over social media is not an avenue for positive change?  We all have our own corners of the world, and it is our job to begin there.  Special Olympics is an amazing organization that puts our athletes with intellectual disabilities first.  That has never been in question, and it shouldn't be now.  They did the right thing by inviting DeVos and allowing her to meet Special Olympics delegates from 40 states.

To Secretary Betsy DeVos,

Thank you for taking the time to attend our dinner.  Thank you for your speech and attaching your own personal story to it.  Thank you for your words of support and encouragement.  Thank you for taking the time afterwards to speak with those of us in attendance. 

As a public school teacher, I earnestly tried to get a minute of your time.  You chose to meet my son Judah and his friend Ryan instead.  In retrospect, I am thankful that you did, because I want you to remember their faces every time you need to make decisions regarding public education.  We will hold you to your promise to stand beside us as a supporter of Special Olympics and Unified Champion Schools.

I honestly wish you the best, and I hope your term, as Secretary of Education is fruitful for all of our students, including those with intellectual disabilities.  Please understand there are many teachers, like myself, in public schools doing everything we can to provide more than just a “free and appropriate” education.  Unified Sports is a major catalyst in that effort by providing positive avenues for students to develop inclusive relationships and promote an overall atmosphere of inclusion in their schools.


Jarrod Norris
G.W. Carver Elementary School
Yuma, AZ