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On Sunday, Sept. 30, Carol got a disturbing call from her son’s school. According to an official at D.C.’s Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD), her son had participated in some horseplay gone awry: In what started as a war game in a boys’ dormitory, several students had taken a black classmate hostage, held him for an hour, and written racist symbols on his body. Though the role of Carol’s 15-year-old son was in dispute, the school hit him with a five-day suspension, starting that night.
Carol, who asked to keep her and her son’s full names out of the paper, lives in Levittown, Pa. She bought an Amtrak ticket online and e-mailed it to the school, which is located on the campus of Gallaudet University in Northeast.
Before her son could print his itinerary, a residence staff member took him to Union Station and dropped him off. Carol received a flurry of panicked text messages. Her son had never ridden the train and didn’t know how to pick up his ticket or how to recognize his stop when he couldn’t hear the conductor’s announcements.
He made it to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station around 10 p.m. Carol and her partner, Ann, were waiting with hugs and the bad news. The boy would be grounded the whole week and charged with cleaning duties for their four-person, nine-pet house. Carol thought the punishment fit the crime. Her son’s suspension wouldn’t be a vacation.
A few days later, everything got a lot more complicated.
On Oct. 3, D.C. police announced that they were investigating the incident at MSSD as a potential hate crime. MSSD has a congressional mandate to educate a variety of underserved deaf and hearing-impaired students. The 170 students, most of whom live on campus, are 41 percent white and 45 percent black.
Within hours, TV trucks pulled up to campus gates. The story ran on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC, and in newspapers and blogs across the country. An Oct. 10 article in USA Today described the incident as a copycat of racist pranks like those that led to the arrests of the Jena Six.
It all began around midnight on Saturday, Sept. 29, when two groups of boys in Residence Hall E decided to play a game of war. The game had been banned since the year before, but the teenage boys were friends. The territorial contest was ready for a revival.
As usual, it was the first floor versus the basement. This year, the demographics of room assignments added an unsettling twist. The basement team was almost entirely black. The first floor team was mostly, but not all, white. According to some accounts, the basement team chose the name Black Power or Black KKK. The boys upstairs may have called themselves Hitler or the Nazi Lovers.
The goal of the game was to take over territory by capturing rival players and occupying floors. There were forays into enemy territory, a few scuffles. It’s not clear whether the one dorm staffer on duty noticed the boys thundering through the halls long after the 11:30 p.m. lights out.
The first-floor team quickly captured a black boy from the basement and dragged him into a room. They tied him to a chair and used a marker to inscribe swastikas and “KKK”s on his body. They held their captive for almost an hour. When they let him go, he reported the attack to residence hall officials. Seven boys involved in the attack, six white and one black, were sent home.
The ensuing media coverage prompted frustration and anger in the deaf community. A debate over what had happened, and what it meant, raged on Internet discussion boards and in bars and cafes near the Gallaudet campus. But the arguments took place in a vacuum—official accounts of the incident offered few details, and no eyewitnesses stepped forward to tell the story to the public.
Even the parents of the boys involved felt out of the loop.
After she got her son home, Carol sat him down with Ann, whom he also calls Mom, and two friends fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). They asked him to explain what happened.
Her son, who is white and Jewish, said he hadn’t helped capture the victim. He said he’d quit the game and returned to his room before the others embarked on torturing their captive with a marker.
A week later, Carol says she believes her son. But she’s still waiting for an explanation of what happened and an answer about what to do next.
“I’m not blaming them, but I also think, myself and the school, we need to look more at what we did to let him fail,” she says. The petite redhead, wearing a Gilda Radner motorcycle T-shirt, tells her story with her son at her side, busily thumbing the keyboard of his Sidekick.
Despite courtroom battles with school officials in their old hometown, Flemington, N.J., Carol’s son was kept in mainstream education long after his hearing loss became severe. By the third grade he had lost an average of 30 to 45 decibels—he could hear the clamor of the playground but had trouble understanding specific words. By the fifth grade, he had lost 50 to 70 decibels and could no longer understand a teacher in a quiet classroom.
Still, school officials insisted on keeping him in regular classes because he could talk. But, Carol says, “That doesn’t change the fact that he can’t hear.” In the sixth grade, he was assigned an interpreter, but his mom thinks the adjustment made matters worse. “Having an adult walk around with you all the time doesn’t help you get involved socially with other kids,” she says. “I should have found a better educational opportunity for him. I did try. I didn’t have the understanding of what his needs were.”
Carol’s son didn’t begin a serious study of ASL until the eighth grade, when she convinced the district to place him in a deaf program at a high school two hours from their home. When he enrolled as a sophomore this September at MSSD, she thought she’d finally done right by her son. Now she’s not so sure.
Carol realized early on that she couldn’t teach her son the nuances of the deaf world. She says she never realized she had to spell out all the rules and symbols of oral culture. “I failed as a parent,” she says. “So I send him to this school and trust that they’re going to do that, and they fail him too.”
She believes that her son didn’t comprehend the racial implications of the attack, largely because his education had been stunted by years in mainstream education. He misbehaved, she says, but she worries he was also victimized by older students who pressured him to participate.
“A lot of his social immaturity has to do with the fact that he’s been isolated from kids,” she says. “He’s like a fifth-grader. It’s almost like when someone brings their little sister or little brother along, and they try to act cool, like how they see other people act. But it’s just not right.”
A month after the incident in the dorm, Carol’s son, now 16, is still on cleaning duty at home. The 5-foot-2, 120-pound boy, with a fuzzy crop of dark brown hair, spends his free time doing homework sent from school or chatting on the Internet with friends back in the dorm. He misses football practice and even his classes. Over several sessions on AOL Instant Messenger, he recounted his version of the events of Sept. 29.
On that Saturday night, after eating pizza in the cafeteria, he had gathered with friends in his room in one of two boys’ dorms, which house about 50 students each. They were watching Next, a Nicolas Cage thriller, with the captions on.
“see first i was waching a movie and then [my roommate] left the room and then he came back and asked if i wanted to play,” he types.
He had just switched rooms, he says, and moved in with one of the cool kids, who also happened to be black. The change was a coup. His first friends in the dorm, he says, all got picked on, like him. But in recent weeks, he’d made an effort to earn the respect of the guys who did the hazing. He started stealing sandwiches from the cafeteria and passed them out at the dorm. His efforts seemed to be paying off, and he jumped at the invitation to play war.
“so i said ok and then i went to downstars with [my roommate] and the other kids were all talking at the same time and fiting about things like what teams
“then someone said to play black aganst wite and we all said no and then we said floor aganst floor”
The boys split up and began to play. The first-floor team stormed a second-floor storage area, which a group of their opponents had already occupied. The invaders were bigger boys, and there were more of them. They easily rousted their rivals, giving chase and catching one boy as the pack ran down the stairs. Carol’s son says his roommate and another boy led their captive by the arms back to a room on the first floor. Three boys used shoelaces to tie his ankles to the chair legs and lashed his hands behind his back. The boys told Carol’s son that since he hadn’t participated in the capture, he had to conduct the interrogation.
“i asked him questions about what the other team was doing and planning to do”
But the prisoner just laughed at the questions, and the other boys pushed Carol’s son to keep trying to get answers. Carol’s son was getting frustrated. Then he snapped.
“when i asked him questions he laufed and i hit him on his chest
“then he kept laufing so i quit the game and i went back to my room”
He realizes what he did was wrong.
“but i didnt mean to hurt him i was just mad czu he was laufing ag me”
Carol’s son says the residence educator on duty never noticed the evening’s rambunctious capers. Four peer mediators, students who help enforce curfew, had promised not to tell. He says he didn’t learn what had happened until the next morning, when he tried to sign out of the dorm for breakfast and was told he had to wait for a member of the staff.
“if all that didn’t happen it probably would have been fun”
Carol says her son didn’t understand the implications of what had happened.
“My biggest thing was that this wasn’t a racial incident, at least for him,” she says. “We all kind of explained to him in every form of language we could find. He didn’t know he hurt someone, and when he found out, he was devastated.”
The boy grew up with Carol, her lesbian partner, an older brother, and three adopted black sisters. Carol says her son never understood race the way most people do, and that he doesn’t know the meaning of the KKK or a swastika.
“He just doesn’t get those kinds of things,” she says. When people say she should have taught him more, she agrees. “They’re right. But I didn’t know I needed to do that. I clearly missed the boat.”
Carol says she also failed to notice when her shy son, who still plays with GI Joes and keeps stuffed animals on his bed, began feeling the pull of adolescent rebellion. When he comes home, he runs around with the elementary school kids in the neighborhood. But at his new school, her son wanted to make friends with older students who broke the rules. “I didn’t realize he’s kind of gotten to the age where he wanted to be really cool,” she says.
When she visited him after his first two weeks at school, he told her he was happy but a little frustrated. Because he began learning ASL only recently, he had trouble communicating with students who’d grown up in deaf schools. A few students teased him for speaking, telling him he didn’t belong in a deaf school if he still used his voice.
Carol’s son can still speak because he lost his hearing slowly. He now has an average hearing loss of 80 decibels, which means most sounds need to be amplified millions of times to register in his brain. He wouldn’t hear the roar of a motorcycle or the nearby trill of a ringing phone. Even though he might be able to notice a jackhammer or a siren, he identifies with deaf culture and refuses to wear a hearing aid or consider the option of a cochlear implant. He wanted the approval of kids in the dorm who had mastered deaf culture, the same ones who told him he didn’t fit in.
On the fourth day of her son’s suspension, Carol got a call from the assistant principal. The story had changed. Her son had been expelled. His only hope was the “manifestation determination,” a hearing designed to determine whether his disability had directly caused his behavior. When she and her son showed up for the hearing the next week, they were escorted through a back entrance into a room in an unused portion of the school.
Instead of listening to her argument, she says, the administrators interrogated her son again. Based on their investigation, they agreed with his version of events—that he had questioned the victim, hit him, then returned to his room without notifying authorities. Nonetheless, the expulsion stood.
Carol decided to file an appeal. She thought kicking him out would inflict more damage, forcing him back into an isolated existence in the hearing world.
“If you just throw a kid out of school, what do they learn from it?” she says. “That’s his culture. I don’t live in the world he lives in. I don’t understand it.”
At the meeting, administrators gave Carol a counselor’s report on a meeting with her son and several other students following an incident in the dorm about a week before the war game. The document suggests that there may have been signs of discontent brewing among residents.
The counselor wrote, “On September 21st, in the afternoon, this counselor met with [Carol’s son] along with approximately 6 other boys to discuss the incident in the dorm as a means of de-escalating the tension that was building among the boys. At first, [Carol’s son] was slightly defensive and indicated that he did not need to be present in the meeting. After several minutes, however, [Carol’s son] began to participate and very much took on the role of a mediator. He attempted to explain several times to other students the importance of getting along and “being mature.”
Carol’s son says the incident in question involved a white boy calling his roommate the “N word.” His roommate reported the incident to dorm staff, who organized a meeting to discuss what had happened. At first, Carol’s son was frustrated, since he hadn’t witnessed the racial slur. He says he decided to try to mediate because the rising anger in the room made him uneasy. “I don’t like mad people,” he types over IM.
In the session with the counselor, the white name-caller said he knew he’d used a bad word, but he didn’t see how he could have offended anyone other than the one person he’d attacked. A black friend of the boy who’d been called the name was more angry than the victim himself and kept calling the white boy stupid.
“[The white boy] just kept saying he didnt understand why [other black kids were] mad
“i said its bad to say and i said we should just be friends
“so we can all get along”
When the war game got underway a week later, the white boy and the boy he’d verbally abused ended up on the same team. The boy who’d been the angriest was on the other. Carol’s son says some of the boys fought over team names, but he didn’t sense any fun-spoiling animosity.
“dont thikn anyone was mad just gonna have fun
“like they argud about teems and stuff but then it was ok with everyone to do up against down”
The next morning, he says, he learned that the game itself had a history and roots in a long-established rivalry between floors in the dorm.
One MSSD graduate, a Gallaudet freshman who asked that his name not be used, said the games began in the 2005n2006 school year. The contests began as water fights, he writes in an e-mail, and the dorm staff gave the OK so long as the students cleaned up. “We would use water balloons, condoms, cups full of water and even trashcans,” he writes. He says the residence education director eventually banned the games, but the dorm staff would usually look the other way.
Like most boarding school dorms, the residence halls at MSSD have always been incubators for socially charged adolescent games.
Ryan Leon, who graduated in 1994, says the pranks were sometimes cruel but not overtly racist.
“I’d kind of rather keep those pranks to myself as I’m unsure how long the statute of limitations lasts,” he says. Because the school is small, he adds, “you couldn’t be as choosy about who to be friends with. So all of us, coming from different backgrounds and races, pretty much got along and were friends. There was not much of a racial divide among us.”
MSSD spokeswoman Danielle Puzio acknowledges problems with the water fights last year. As for this year’s events, she could not comment on specifics because of privacy restrictions. D.C. police have yet to file any charges. Puzio says that the basement wing of the dorm does have more black students than the first floor but notes that both floors are still diverse.
She says the school has long made an effort to encourage healthy race relations.
The incident is clearly taking a toll on the Gallaudet community. On Oct. 16, Dr. Katherine A. Jankowski, the dean who oversees MSSD, announced her resignation, citing health problems and the stress of “the recent crisis.”
On Oct. 22, Carol received a written response to her appeal of her son’s expulsion. Interim principal Daniel Dukes said the school stood by its decision.
According to the parent/student handbook, her son’s actions were grounds for expulsion. The letter read, “After carefully reviewing the events of this serious situation again, I do believe that [he], through his actions, should be considered as having a ‘significant role’ in the harassment and bullying of the victim.”
Carol’s son heard from friends in the dorm that one of the seven boys who, like him, were originally expelled has been allowed to return to school. Meanwhile, Carol hasn’t heard back on her request for a second appeal.
School officials in Levittown have offered to admit her son to a regular classroom with an interpreter. It’s a familiar, and inadequate, solution.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know,” she says as to her next step. “I’m beside myself at this point.”