The parents of a 14-year-old developmentally disabled student say he was silenced by the Northport-East Northport School District’s board of education on Monday after he began to express disappointment with how he was treated in the classroom.
Christian Ranieri’s parents said the night – meant to be a therapeutic exercise of expression – left their autistic son nearly in tears. A YouTube video depicting the incident has quickly gained thousands of views.
Ranieri arrived to the Monday night school board meeting after his therapist felt it might be best for the highly functioning autistic high schooler to share his feelings through writing. “It was apparent he was not being heard,” his mother, Carina Ranieri told Examiner.com in a phone interview.
The teen – who is provided with special accommodations through an Individualized Education Plan – had been concerned that teachers were not following the rewards portion of the plan. Out of frustration, he reportedly yelled at a teacher on Sept. 27 and was suspended as a result. Because student records are protected under federal law, it was not immediately clear what was reported to school officials.
Carina Ranieri, the former president of the Special Education PTA, said her son was trying to “self-advocate” when he decided to write a speech to read to the school board. She said he wanted to bring attention to the elected school board members “the fact that he’s being suspended and they [the district administrators] are not taking responsibility.” Ranieri was reportedly making the speech during the public comments portion of the regular school board meeting.
After just about one minute, the school board president, Stephen Waldenburg, Jr., stopped Ranieri, citing privacy laws and cautioning that law strictly prohibits the discussion of personnel and disciplinary matters. The teen continued to read his speech – careful not to mention anyone by name, his mother said – but he was halted again a few minutes later, when Waldenburg said the discourse was “inappropriate.”
“You have to understand that we are legally limited in what we can discuss in a public session,” he said. “You are not giving the superintendent an opportunity to discuss a private, personal matter.”
Ranieri’s parents said they attempted to meet with the district superintendent, Dr. Marylou McDermott, after Christian’s suspension, but were lied to about her whereabouts and eventually escorted from the building by security because they didn’t have a scheduled appointment. When they made an appointment to meet with McDermott, the superintendent cancelled and directed them to meet with other district officials.
“It was no surprise that she would pass the buck,” Carina Ranieri said. “We were just disappointed.”
Both McDermott and Waldenburg did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Update [Oct. 10, 2013]: Through a spokesperson, school board president Stephen Waldenburg released the following statement Wednesday night:
“The Northport-East Northport Board of Education applauds ninth grade student Christian Ranieri for having the courage to come forward at the Board of Education meeting of Monday, October 7th, to share his perspectives. In a prepared speech, he related to all in attendance how he has overcome life challenges.
As the Board of Education President, I felt it was appropriate for Christian to share his thoughts about his personal development and his work as a youth ambassador for the New York State Self-Advocacy Association. But Christian’s speech veered into a revelation of details regarding a pending disciplinary matter and individuals associated with it, and thus on two occasions, I explained to him why those parts of the speech were inappropriate.
I explained to Christian and those in attendance that under the law, student disciplinary matters are confidential. It was my conclusion, supported by our legal counsel at the table, that Christian’s revelation of this information was inappropriate because it potentially compromised the pending disciplinary matter and revealed personal protected information. As a result, I had to insist that he not provide any more information about it.
The Board of Education always has and always will support the public’s voice, be they students or any community members. We are also committed to protecting personal rights as defined by the law, particularly those in which the Board is empowered to be the ultimate arbiter. We recognize the sensitivities of this issue, but stand firm in ensuring that we are in full compliance with all State and Federal laws, as our oath of office requires.”