I mean, I don’t think you CAN live in a bubble when you parent a special needs child. You must remain vigilant at all times; whether for medical reasons, potential IEP shenanigans, or anything pertaining to the well-being and continued development of your child, you are always on guard, even when for a moment everything seems to be just as it should.
But sometimes something catches us off guard and we realize we’ve managed to visit the bubble just long enough to hear the loud POP and feel the unexpected chill upon our skin when it suddenly bursts.
And so it was, this past Saturday morning, when my tiny, temporary bubble BURST with a BANG.
A BANG so loud it made me jump right out of my seat.
A BANG so intense my hands still shake if I think about it too much.
When I first read the news story about special education teacher Daniel Lentini -who works in the same district where my own special needs son Andrew attends school – and the accusations that he abused several of his students, the story felt so close to home I was compelled to write about it.
A short time after my article published, I began receiving emails from some of the parents whose kids were in Lentini’s class.
As I read their words, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of betrayal by our school district, who failed these students on several levels, including speaking to the parents immediately after the allegations were brought against the teacher, so they could take the necessary steps to protect their children from further potential harm.
By the way, and this for ALL the school districts out there: parents DON’T live by the “innocent until proven guilty” code. We leave that for the courtrooms. All we need is one tiny seed of doubt that someone MAY be harming our child and that’s enough for us to know we don’t want that person anywhere near our son or daughter. Do you hear me? We don’t sit around and wait until the bruises are big enough to see from outer space, because by then the emotional scars are so deep it’ll take a miracle to heal them. We have the RIGHT TO KNOW that there are concerns about a teacher, regardless of whether the concerns are substantiated by one of your over-priced private investigators, so that we can get our kids the HELL AWAY FROM HIM or HER.
I also received an email from Laurie James-Engler, the aide who initially came forward with the abuse allegations against Lentini and provided her superiors with 8 PAGES of detailed accounts of inappropriate behavior towards the students by this teacher. These were incidents which she personally witnessed and she was willing to go on record with them.
Let me tell you something about the UN-glamorous world of a whistle blower. This woman has been shunned by coworkers, was told by her supervisors that her job was basically over, has endured countless sleepless nights because of the stress associated with this situation, has been labeled as a disgruntled employee by the district as a cheap and cowardly effort to discredit her, and will surely have her personal and professional life scrutinized by Lentini’s legal team as well as OUSD.
Do you know what disgruntled employees do? They slash tires and post Facebook updates that begin with “My boss is a douche.” They don’t willingly turn their lives upside down by going against the status quo.
James-Engler could have folded. She could have given in to the pressure of the district and sought to save her own ass. Instead, she has taken the road most refuse to travel and has stuck to her story, because as a fellow parent and a decent human being, she cares about our kids and knows that abuse, in ANY form, towards ANYONE, is UNACCEPTABLE.
I want you all to stop reading for a second and say a prayer for James Engler. Pray for continued strength for her, because Lord knows she’s going to need it as this story continues to unfold and she’s forced to recount the details of the alleged events of abuse over and over again.
Now, back to that bubble.
It was Saturday morning, and I was home alone with Andrew. Mikey and Ian had left for Ian’s baseball game early and I was planning on meeting them at the field a little later. Before I headed out, I checked the morning’s headlines on ocregister.com, and there, on the homepage was a photo of Mr. Daniel Lentini.
At least,that’s what we used to call him years ago, when he was still an instructional classroom aide and worked at Andrew’s previous school.
In Andrew’s previous classroom.
And that’s when the bubble went POP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
and I was left covered in its cold, damp, disgusting aftermath.
I sat and I stared at his picture and I thought I might throw up.
Before that moment, I had no idea who Daniel Lentini was and what he looked like. All I knew was that he better not cross paths with me.
But that all changed once I saw his face and realized he was someone who not only was being accused of mistreating and abusing his innocent special needs students, but someone who once had lots of access to my son.
You don’t want to do it.
You don’t want to go there because once you go there it’s so hard to get back.
But despite your best efforts your heart begins to palpitate while your mind starts to race
and the only words you hear, besides the ringing in your ears,
I don’t know how I got to that baseball field, but the minute I saw my husband I began to weep.
My best friend helped talk me off the ledge, right there in between little league innings, and when I was finally able to catch my breath, all I could muster was : “It could’ve been him. It could’ve been Andrew.”
I looked over at my son then, sitting on a blanket near his daddy, his head tilted down as he played on his iPad while his brother waited for his turn at bat. I watched as my Andrew sat there and I imagined someone purposely hurting him and the air rushed out of my lungs and my knees went weak.
It’s been a few days since my bubble burst.
Do I think Lentini hurt my son?
No, and the only reason I say that is because back then he was an aide who was under the direction of one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Had there been any cause for concern I choose to believe that she would have seen to it that Lentini was removed and disciplined.
But evil lurks within “kind” men and the most dangerous assumption is that someone capable of hugs isn’t capable of harm.
I too have had some sleepless nights lately.
I keep thinking how vulnerable our children are; some are non-verbal, some are physically unable to fend for themselves, most require a level of assistance that forces them to rely on others.
And do you know what I keep seeing in my mind as I lay wide away in the darkness? Big giant bullseyes over the heads of our kids, because they are easy targets and there are plenty of Lentini’s in this world who will try to take advantage of them.
Hopefully the James-Engler’s will outnumber them.
In the meantime, I’m so grateful for the amazing people in Andrew’s life today, especially his 1:1 aide; we’ll call her Ms. L for privacy’s sake.
She’s one of the only reasons I’m not homeschooling my special needs son right now. Ms. L is his “school mom” and I know she would do anything to keep Andrew safe.
Having her in our lives has been an absolute game changer and as I dropped him off in his classroom this morning, I counted my blessings and tried to put some distance between the WHAT IF’s that have been haunting me all weekend.
But no matter how hard I try,
I know I’ll never forget
the way my insides shook