Safety Patrol: A Fifth Grader, His Mom,
and a Lesson in Advocacy
One of the opportunities elementary students have in our school district is to serve on Safety Patrol in the 5th grade. The police department partners with the school district to offer this program. Student participants go through an extensive training to learn how to safeguard crosswalks and assist other students as they arrive and leave the school campus.
Announcements regarding the opportunity to participate in the program were made in my twin sons' Fourth grade classroom. Riley, my hearing son, enthusiastically volunteered to join the Safety Patrol and go through the training program. Crosby, who has a hearing loss, heard the announcement, too. However, he had no idea what Safety Patrol was and, consequently, didn't volunteer. We drive by the Safety Patrol every morning, but this turned out to be key vocabulary that was missing from his lexicon.
By the time I was able to explain the program to Crosby and contact the coordinator, all the positions were filled. A parent volunteer who oversees the program did agree to add my son to the waiting list. Shortly after our conversation, I received an e-mail from the school principal stating, "I received word that Crosby is interested in being on Safety Patrol. While he is on the waiting list at this point, he probably wouldn't be on the squad until the fall, so I thought it would be best to look into it now. Even after participating in two IEP meetings and reading multiple reports, I guess I still don't know enough about his hearing loss to judge his ability to hear cars, whistles and voices (all necessary) while on patrol."
Had the principal stopped there, it would have been fine. Since Crosby uses both a hearing aid and cochlear implant, it is only logical that parents would have legitimate concerns about a deaf child being on Safety Patrol. Nonetheless, he went on to write "I was advised by San Diego Police Department (SDPD) that an aide would need to be with him. However, since this is an optional program, the school couldn't pay for the aide. Please let me know your thoughts."
After I calmed down, (and wisely chose not to share my initial thoughts!), I responded that I appreciated his willingness to address this sensitive issue proactively. I went on to say that that there are other options besides an aide that should be considered, such as a peer-buddy, FM system, or visual cues. I was concerned that having an aide by his side would counter the goal of encouraging him to become more independent. In my e-mail response to the principal, I requested that my husband and I meet with him to explore options that would not compromise the safety of the students.
Instead of holding a meeting, he wanted to have a couple of questions answered which included asking the district's legal opinion on the matter. That's when my red flag went up! To me, this was putting the cart before the horse. The principal stated that rather than "meet multiple times due to lack of information at the outset" he wanted to wait until items that needed clarification were resolved. Conversely, I was concerned that if he did not have sufficient facts for the legal office, he would receive a faulty opinion.
Not one to sit idly by, I proceeded to call the sergeant who supervised the SDPD officer and the school district's Acting Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH) Program Manager to solicit their help. I explained to them that, in my opinion, the principal and the SDPD officer had pre-determined Crosby 's capabilities without fairly assessing his ability to do the job. They had predetermined that an aide must be present without consulting his parents, D/HH itinerant teacher, regular education teacher, classroom aide or speech teacher. Crosby had no opportunity to receive training or be objectively assessed while on the waiting list. The officer and principal were operating on the false assumption that Crosby couldn't perform the responsibilities without the support of an aide. Another word for this is prejudice.prejudging his capabilities rather than fairly assessing them. I also stated that if, after training and an objective assessment, Crosby was not able to perform the duties of a Safety Patrol Officer, we should explore other ways to include him. Perhaps he could write down the license plate numbers of all the illegally parked cars in the crossing area, or perform some other traffic safety related duty.
At one point along the way I had to ask myself if I was resolving this issue for me or for Crosby . I asked my son how much he wanted to be on Safety Patrol (his answer was "a lot"). I also asked some of his service providers if I was being unrealistic to think that he could perform this function. All felt that with accommodations he would have no trouble at all. Even his twin brother gave thoughtful consideration to my question and said he could do the job.
The more confident I became that Crosby could participate in the program regardless of his severe-to-profound hearing loss, the angrier I became at the bureaucracy and run-around we were facing from both the district and the city. I started to envision headlines in the local paper reading, "Student Denied Opportunity to Participate on Safety Patrol Due to Disability." Even though I'm an active advocate for my child, I didn't have any desire to file a complaint. First of all, I wasn't clear what law would cover this issue.. Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504, California Education Code? Not that I would let this deter me, I just wasn't eager to hop on the litigation train.
I also wouldn't knowingly put my son in a position that would compromise student safety or increase the school district's liability. The other headline I imagined was, "Deaf Safety Patrol Student Contributes to Child Injured in Crosswalk." Certainly, I wouldn't want that kind of burden overshadowing my son for the rest of his life.
During this ongoing dispute I had occasion to speak with AG Bell's Parent Section President. She helped me put this challenge into perspective by saying her child wouldn't have had this opportunity when he was growing up fifteen years ago. This made me realize that even if Crosby didn't get to participate on Safety Patrol, I had to fight this battle for all deaf and hard of hearing students. It became my responsibility to educate the police department, district administrators, parents and students. What a great opportunity for Crosby 's peers to learn how to accommodate a student with a disability while performing a vital service to the school community. They would learn life-long skills that could carry over into their school and work environments.
After a period of inaction from both the school district and the city (they were also seeking a legal opinion from their attorney), I decided to escalate the issue and research the laws. I read the city's policy for accommodating people with disabilities, the school district's policy on student nondiscrimination and found several citations that extracurricular activities are covered in IEP's. I called the Parent Support Unit and the ombudsperson from the school district. On the city side, I contacted the lieutenant in the police department's Juvenile Services, who was compassionate and actively sought a resolution. Finally, after several phone calls, e-mails and meetings, it was agreed that the police department would train and assess Crosby -and if an aide was needed the school district would provide this service.
Not long after his training we received a phone call from San Diego Police Department informing us there was an opening on the crew. As long as the 'whistle blower' wears the FM system, Crosby is able to perform his duties. He will now proudly serve as a full safety patrol member in the fall.
Editor's note: Besides being the parent of twin boys, Melanie Doyle is co-founder of the San Diego Area Deaf and Hard of Hearing Family Camp and co-author of the manual, Mainstreaming the Student who is Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing, A Guide for Professionals, Teachers, and Parents.