When special education isn’t: The Alan Edmondson story

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 14-Sep-2010

It was between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m. on May 5, 2005. Mona Stewart was at home. Her grandson, Alan Edmondson, a special needs student, had taken the school bus to Centennial High School (the old John Marshall) in north Oklahoma City.

A teacher in Alan’s classroom at school called and told her, “You need to get to school, right now.” Mona asked what was wrong. The woman told her, “You need to come to school right now. Alan is having a bad day.”

She went, accompanied by her daughter DeeDee (Alan’s aunt). They discovered Alan, a small boy for his age, in his classroom, lying on a cot behind a partition. He was in a fetal position, upset, with his legs balled up. The boy was obviously hurting. As they approached, Alan became highly agitated.

Mona remembers she asked the teachers in the room what was wrong, but got no answer. Although accustomed to discerning his needs with sign language and by other means, Mona could not figure out what had happened. 

Mona took the boy, then 11 years old, to the OU Medical Center. Alan cannot easily communicate verbally, and “the doctors were nervous.” They were unable, Mona says, to learn what was wrong.

She and DeeDee then drove him to Baptist Integris. Doctors had to restrain Alan while administering a shot, in an attempt to calm him. After a second shot, he relaxed somewhat. After about three hours, they were ready to send him home. A doctor issued a prescription for Zanax, which made grandma Mona nervous, but she filled it. No one was sure exactly what was wrong.

The women headed home in separate vehicles. Alan traveled with Mona. Alan – who is never violent toward his grandmother – lunged at her from the back seat and grabbed her around the neck. “It was almost like he was angry with me for making him go to that school,” she remembers. She was able to retain control of her car. A good Samaritan stopped to assure she made it home alright.

At home, that night, when Alan splayed his legs (he was wearing boxers), the grandmother was shocked to discover a “grotesque” swelling in the boy’s genital area. He was black and blue. They immediately returned to the hospital.

At Baptist, the physician who saw him, Dr. Kevin White, wanted to take a sonogram to see what might have caused the obvious injury to the boy, who was still upset. They had to restrain Alan, and he was tied down. Mona held his upper torso, while nurses held his legs. The doctor took the sonogram and examined the lad.

The doctor told Mona, “Trauma has been done to this boy.” He said the cause of the injury could only have been one of these three things: sexual abuse, a hernia or trauma. The physician concluded it was the latter. He believed Alan had been kicked in the groin, and prescribed antibiotics to combat infection and swelling. He allowed Alan to return home with his grandmother. He was upset, but better.  

The long nightmare of a day ended some time in the middle of the night, when Alan finally rested, fitfully.

Within several days, the family met with administrators and the special educators at Centennial. Besides Mona, DeeDee and Alan, in the meeting were an administrator, Michelle Miller Hays, an assistant principal, Barbara Davis, a temporary worker — Patricia Gilbert, who had been hired through Nurse Finders — and a few others, including, Mona remembers, “a gentleman from the main office.”

Hays was stern, saying the school was not meeting the needs of the child. Mona listened to the narrative for a couple of minutes, then interrupted.

“I want to know who hurt my grandson,” she said. She turned to Alan and said, “Point to the person who hurt you.” He stood up, walked directly over to the temp, Patricia Gilbert, and pointed right at her. Then, he bolted from the room, with Aunt DeeDee in pursuit.

Before DeeDee brought Alan back, the meeting broke up with confusion. Mona demanded to know if any of the personnel were trained in the Cape Hold technique, a means to safely restrain a child. Mona received apologies from one teacher, Joanne, who admitted they’d not handled the boy correctly. It became clear, Mona remembers, that the school could not document the training of those who had worked with Alan that fateful day.

The 2005 incident has never been resolved to the family’s satisfaction. Mona believes it left lasting scars on Alan’s tender psyche: “He became very defensive, unlike the way he had always behaved before. He seemed no longer able to discern the intentions of others, whether they are coming in a friendly manner or not. And after having been potty-trained, this poor child wets the bed a lot. The attack changed him.”

The Alan Edmondson story is sad. The 2005 incident, Mona says, was merely the worst in a long string of neglect and disinterest from a system required by law to provide her grandson with an education.

Mona believes her grandson has been shuttled from one school to the next as a way to keep the situation fluid and unclear. Alan has at various times in his public school tenure attended Eisenhower, Horace Mann, Andrew Johnson, Garden Oaks, Taft, Centennial and Classen School of Advanced Studies.

At the latter school, Mona says, he has found a peaceful environment. Still, it’s not clear to her that his time there in the last year, has brought much educational progress. This year he is learning some social skills.

Paging through Alan’s lengthy IEPs (Individual Education Plans), Mona says they are “works of fiction” that were never fulfilled. IEPs are required for all special education students in public schools. Mona says the school system “has failed him, and even abused him. They have not educated him.”

Mona worries about Alan’s future, including the years after he leaves school: “What’s going to happen to this child when I am gone? He isn’t being taught, beyond what I’ve given him, to be self-sufficient. He is not learning how to communicate or being given any basis to become successful in the world. How is he going to achieve things in his later years, after I am gone?”

Since the late 1990s, Alan, who is now 16, has had a handful of empathetic teachers, including Zuella Wilson, at Johnson Elementary, a woman the family still remembers with affection.

There was a time, part of one school year, when Alan was provided with an electronic device that allowed him rather significant means of communication. By pressing buttons, he could indicate basic wants and needs. But the device was lost or misplaced at school. Mona kept asking for it, but no one knew where it had gone.

For the most part, Mona contends, Alan has been warehoused, not educated, in the Oklahoma City public schools. At various times, Mona has contacted the governor, the state schools superintendent and the city superintendent about Alan’s situation, but says she’s never believed the issues she raised became a priority for anyone in the system.

State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, a northeast Oklahoma City Democrat who is Mona’s representative in the state House, says, “We made this family a promise that we did not keep. Some people in Mona’s position give up, but she hasn’t. Not everyone knows how, or learns how as she did, to be an advocate for their child or grandchild. Some even begin to think they deserve bad treatment.”

Pittman continues, “Education is a civil right, and the law requires that children like Alan get a meaningful education. How can we do anything if we can’t educate our kids?”

At the end of one of several interviews about Alan’s experiences in the Oklahoma City public schools, Mona said: “I am just wondering how we could be shuttled from one school to the next all these years, and this boy still not know anything except the basics of communication I’ve taught him. I’m not just worried for him, but for all special needs children in such circumstances.”

She concludes: “Somehow the system must be held responsible and accountable for the damage done to this child 2005, and for the neglectful inattention to his needs for all these years.”