Untied States

Children in a Hostile World

By Tolu Olorunda

“A youth is to be regarded with respect. How do we know that his future will not be equal to our present?”

—Confucius (“Confucian Analects”)

“I’ll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out. That’s what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they’re silent? They don’t have a father around to tell them, ‘Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot’.”

—Michael Savage (July 17, 2008)

How does an autistic, cognitively-impaired 11-year-old end up charged with felony assault? This is the story of Zakhqurey Price, who lives and schools in Arkansas with his family.

On October 30 last year, Zakh, according to reports, had a meltdown, resulting in restraining efforts by two school personnel. The adults, allegedly, cornered him and attempted to subdue him. Zakh refused and law enforcement was called in. Minor injuries resulted in the scuffle, but the 11-year-old was thereafter suspended for 12 school days, charged with felony assault, and booked as a juvenile.

For three months before the incident, his grandmother, Carole Reynolds, had been requesting an Individual Education Plan (IEP), required by law, to help Zach, who has an IQ of 68 and reads at a 2nd grade level, develop more solidly in school and assuage behavioral concerns. She tried to get things right early on, but was told to wait till school started. “We [had] made requests to receive a copy of his evaluation/assessment results before the October 15th temporary placement IEP meeting and were refused because they said it was not allowed by state law,” she is quoted in an Examiner news article. Reynolds also “repeatedly asked for a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), and positive behavior plan with positive behavior strategies,” but was unable to secure the requests. Zach was also denied Physical Therapy since, school administrators told her, he could “get around ... just fine.” And despite recommendation by a counseling center that Zach be provided a full-time aid, he never got one. At an October 15th meeting with school administrators, “suggestions and guidelines were agreed upon but no formal positive behavior support plan was completed.” Two weeks later, their incompetence bore fruit. And though in his IEP it states police intervention would be ruled out, Zach left school grounds in handcuffs.

This is a child caught in the crosshairs of a society content in criminalizing helpless children. Felony assault, it appears to the mentally stable (no pun intended), suggests a premeditated attack on unsuspecting victims; but it’s obvious Zach responded out of self-defense and, what’s worse, fear and anxiety. How sick a society do we live in that mentally-handicapped children are being prosecuted for being handicapped? And not just for being handicapped, but for failing to comply with orders even when all the programs and assistance needed to foster rehabilitation have been denied them.

Zach is currently consigned to homebound schooling by the district for only four hours weekly. While there, he lost his “favorite sibling,” a 3-year-old little sister. Talk about justice! On January 12—tomorrow—Zach’s fate would be decided in a courtroom. There’s a strong chance he ends up charged as planned.

The quote by conservative talk show host Michael Savage, highlighted above, says it all; that autism is an imagination—a mental composition: merely the attention-seeking antics of bratty, moronic, idiotic kids who refuse to act with dignity. Savage calls on fathers—and, consequently, society—to thunder down on kids: “Don’t act like a moron. You’ll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, idiot.” His prescription to cure autism must have been picked up by a Chicago police officer who, last year, slammed 15-year-old special needs student Marshawn Pitts into the cold concrete, right before making punching bags of his cheeks. All caught on tape. Pitts left the incident with scars, fractures, bruises, and a broken nose. He had committed the grave, unforgivable crime of walking down the hallway in an un-tucked shirt.

This is the “hard war” on youth Henry Giroux speaks courageously about in his latest text, Youth in a Suspect Society. The title is accurate. He writes:

“More and more working-class and middle-class youth and poor youth of color either find themselves with vastly diminishing opportunities or are fed into an ever-expanding system of disciplinary control that dehumanizes and criminalizes their behavior in multiple sites, extending from the home and school to the criminal justice system.”

Zakhqurey Price and Marshawn Pitts can bear personal witness. But it’s not just an indifference, which de-prioritizes the concerns raised by youth who fall into these categories; it’s also a callousness at—indeed hatred of—young people who refuse to fall in line and do as told. Thus, if Zakh and Marshawn had simply complied—whether or not their cognitive impairment played a significant part is immaterial in this neoliberal context—their fate would have been different. Giroux goes further: “No longer inscribed in the metaphors of hope, youth—especially those marginalized by race and class—have now been cast into an ever-growing circle of groups targeted through the rhetoric of war and terrorism.”

In this respect, the eight Afghanistan children executed two weeks ago by NATO forces can bear personal witness—from their graves. The children, all enrolled in school, aged eleven to seventeen, were accused of manufacturing bombs for terrorists—a charge disputed by Afghan officials. “The deaths sparked protests across Afghanistan, with students in Jalalabad burning an effigy of Barack Obama and children in Kabul as young as ten-years-old demanding that foreign forces should quit Afghanistan,” reported The Times of London.

How do 8, most likely innocent, children end up executed in a nighttime raid based on inconclusive evidence?

The puzzle isn’t so hard to piece-together, really: If we believe, as a society, that children, no matter how misled, are redeemable, such conviction would account for new sets of practices and ordinances—and legislations. But if we remain convinced that each one, no matter how young, is responsible for his or her actions, and that a set of strict—often inhumane—regulations must be kept in place to contain and curtail the natural irrationality and risky exuberance of kids, then it makes sense when 11-year-olds are suspended for carrying “Tweety Bird” key chains to school, and when 5-year-olds are handcuffed and hauled out of class for throwing tantrums; it makes sense when 6-year-olds are handed 45-day suspensions for bringing Cub Scouts camping utensils to school, or when guns are drawn and squarely pointed at high school students, with sharp-toothed K-9s on duty, all because a principal suspected drugs were being dealt on campus—a suspicion which turned up false.

Only delusions of grandeur would comfort adults into thinking kids aren’t aware of these trends taking place. Not only are kids aware, but many are taking action to protect themselves from a society hostile toward their very existence. This reality accounts for the many “horrific” incidents that make up sensationally-packaged nightly news—of kids flipping out in class, of kids taking each other’s lives, of kids taking their own lives.

And who can blame them?

For more, see the excellent documentary, The War on Kids.

Tolu Olorunda is a columnist for, and a contributor at, January 11, 2010