Award ceremonies are a common occurrence in schools across the country as the academic year draws to a close, and many students treasure the certificates, plaques, and trophies that they receive as a symbol of their achievement.
As parents, it’s heartwarming to watch your child receive an award that publicly acknowledges him or her- or it should be, anyway. Awards are supposed to be a positive endorsement of your child, but can actually turn out to be quite the opposite. Some awards are never deserved to be awarded to a student.
An Indiana elementary school has recently come under some well-deserved media fire after one of its teachers bestowed an award for “Most Annoying Male” to a student with autism at the class’ year-end awards ceremony.
Yes, you read that right.
An unnamed teacher in Gary, Indiana made the appalling decision to bestow the award for “Bailly Preparatory Academy 2018-2019 Most Annoying Male” to Akalis (also known by “Achilles”) Castejon, a non-verbal autistic fifth grader. While other students in the class received awards with a positive slant -such as “Most Improved”, for example- Castejon’s award was bluntly offensive.
And to make matters worse, the trophies were distributed publicly; all fifth-grade students, their parents, and the school principal were also in attendance at the end-of-year ceremony held on May 23.
Akalis was unaware of the implication of his award as he accepted it, though an awkward silence fell on the audience following its announcement. As mom, Estella Castejon explained to Chicago news station WLS-TV,
When they called him up he was just excited to get a gold star because it was shiny.
Akalis was thrilled to be recognized and to receive a trophy, unaware that the award was, in essence, an act of cruel public bullying.
While Akalis Castejon is non-verbal, he often rocks back and forth or shakes. Both of these behaviors are aspects of his autism, which is a fact that Akalis’ teacher should have been well aware of by now. As his mother pointed out to news station WMAQ :
You’d think one would know and understand the conditions of autism and have more patience to deal with children who suffer from autism.
EXACTLY. You’d think that an educator would know, first of all, that Akalis’ behaviors are simply part of his diagnosis, & would have decency and maturity to not mock him -publicly, no less- for behaviors that he cannot control.
But, nope. Not only did the teacher choose to publicly ridicule Akalis with the award, but made sure that he brought it home with him, too. While his father Rick Castejon attempted to diffuse the situation by leaving the award behind in class after the ceremony, the teacher reminded him not to leave it behind:
I didn’t want to cause a scene with other parents there, so I left the award on the table and tried walking away, but the teacher came back and said Akalis forgot his award.
Because what parent wouldn’t want a “Most Annoying Male” trophy decorating their mantelpiece, right??
Oh, the sheer insanity of it all makes me scratch my head in wonder. I can’t imagine any teacher thinking it is appropriate to single out ANY child for an award that calls out their behavior in such a negative way.
The fact that Akalis has autism just makes this despicable act that much worse.
While Estella was unable to attend the ceremony, she made her feelings known the next day by heading directly to the school & demanding an apology. She never received one from Akalis’ teacher or the school principal. The school district, however, issued a public statement written by Gary Community School Corporation emergency manager Dr. Peter Morikis, which states:
The Gary Community School Corporation does not condone this type of behavior and will continue to put the safety and well-being of our students first.
The statement mentions that the teacher in question has received disciplinary action as a consequence of this incident, but the district has not clarified either her identity or if she was terminated from employment.
The lesson that Rick & Estella Castejon hope the public learns from their experience is for people to understand autism.
Instead of educators like this one alienating a student with autism, they should do everything in their power to foster an inclusive, accepting class environment.
NO CHILD deserves to receive such an insulting public “award”. The teacher that distributed this trophy sent a very clear message to the students in attendance that day: “this” child’s behaviors are negative. They are to be mocked. They are to be made fun of… for something that is beyond their control.”
That’s a very disturbing mindset for a teacher that is charged with the task of shaping young minds.
It’s fortunate that Akalis didn’t understand the taunting message his award sent. He was just happy to receive an award- just like the other kids. Students with autism are students FIRST, that are to be treated with the same dignity & respect as any other child in their class. As Akalis’ mom Estella emphasized when speaking to ABC News:
He just wants to be like everyone else. He is like everyone else, the difference is he cannot express himself like every other person does.
Teachers are supposed to encourage & inspire students- not demean them.
To exploit a student’s weaknesses or insecurities publicly is disgusting enough. But to do so to a special-needs student, the most vulnerable of students, shows an immensely distasteful lack of understanding and compassion.
While I often give teachers the benefit of the doubt regarding occasional lapses of judgment, this offense goes far beyond merely a “mistake”. Teachers that (publicly) bully students, especially those with special needs, don’t belong teaching, period.