Teen Cut Off At School Board Meeting
When time came for the public portion of the Northport East-Northport Board of Education meeting on Monday, 14-year-old Christian Ranieri was prepared with a speech.
Ranieri, who is diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, took a stand at the microphone, introduced himself, and began to explain his story about being suspended from school for two days in September and what has happened since.
But the Northport High School freshman didn’t get more than a few sentences in before he was cut off by the school board president, who said the topic was inappropriate for a public forum due to legal reasons.
According to the Ranieri family, the teen was unfairly suspended after he had a disagreement with his resource room teacher about his IEP, or Individualized Educational Plan. This teacher, who is also his IEP case manager, felt intimidated by Ranieri’s approach, the family said, leading to his suspension.
After failed attempts to speak with school administrators about the incident, Ranieri and his parents decided to raise the situation at Monday’s school board meeting.
“This whole incident happened when I tried self-advocating for myself after my resource room teacher did not implement my IEP and my Behavior Intervention Plan,” Ranieri told the school board.
Board of Education President Stephen Waldenburg interjected about a minute into Ranieri’s speech.
“I just have to ask you to understand that boards of education are unable legally, both on the federal and state level, to discuss student disciplinary actions in a public session,” he said.
The teen continued, but was eventually cut off after the school district’s attorney and the school superintendent supported Waldenburg’s position that the matter was inappropriate during a public session – despite his parents’ protests that he “just wants to be heard” and cries of “Let him speak!” from the audience.
The last bit Ranieri squeaked out before a nearly 4-minute debate on whether he should be allowed to continue was, “My parents have explained that you are the ones who decide who manages my IEP, my accommodations and my behavior intervention plan. The person that you chose for me did not do her job, and then accused me of intimidation.” He did not name anyone specific.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an IEP. An IEP should be a “truly individualized document” that creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators and students to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.
Ranieri said that he had been in school for about a month, but parts of his IEP still had not been implemented.
The teen compared his fight for his accommodated seat, which was a part of his IEP, to Rosa Parks’ fight for her seat on the bus.
“In my case, my civil rights gave me the opportunity to have a special seat because of my developmental disability, and yet I find myself having to fight for it,” he said.
Some at the meeting were surprised that the boy wasn’t allowed to speak freely. Of about 20 attendees at the meeting, most were Christian’s friends and family who were there to support him, while others, like Barri Sperber Feuer, were simply residents who attended the meeting.
“Waldenburg repeatedly said that it was inappropriate to discuss individual staff members in a public setting,” Sperber Feuer, of East Northport said. “It was frankly shocking to me that he kept citing federal and state law for why they couldn’t have a discussion about disciplinary action. No one said anything about a discussion. He just wanted his voice heard.”
Sperber Feuer is a mother of three and said she did not know the Ranieri family prior to the school board meeting.
“As parents, we teach our children to stand up for themselves,” she said. “This boy was punished for doing that.”
According to Ranieri’s mother Carina, the day after the suspension occurred, her family went to Northport East-Northport Superintendent Marylou McDermott’s office to discuss what had happened. They said security told them they should write McDermott a letter and asked them to leave.
According to McDermott, she has 10 days to respond to the letter the Ranieri family has written to her regarding the situation.
In the meantime, the Ranieri family said the reasoning behind the teen’s suspension remains unclear, and the way he has been treated since his suspension is unfair.
“All he’s asking for is for someone to investigate this situation,” Carina said after the meeting. “He needs to be heard.”
Ranieri is a youth ambassador for the Office of Developmental Disabilities and its Self-Advocacy Association. He said he plans to discuss these experiences as a keynote speaker at a meeting in Albany at the end of the month. A Facebook group has also been created to follow the teen’s activism, and a video of the school board meeting has been uploaded to YouTube.
Waldenburg did not return a request for comment.
Before Ranieri sat down, he was able to get one final point across.
“I met with the psychologist at my home, and during our conversation, I realized that people needed to hear my story. And that is why I decided to do this. The self-advocacy program has taught me one very important thing, and this is ‘nothing for me, without me,’” Ranieri said.