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Speaking a meager three minutes before the Johnston County Board of Education can be a daunting and intimidating challenge for the average citizen.
That’s partly because the school board limits each public comment speaker to just three minutes. And once the presenter’s three minutes have expired — a giant clock nearby counting down the time — a bell as loud as the buzzer at an ACC basketball game blares out. The one speaking might suspect a trapdoor underneath them will suddenly open and drop them into a pit of hungry alligators.
I know. I was one of those “three-minute presenters” at the last Board of Education meeting, and that unforgiving clock blasted me, leaving me one paragraph short of my presentation.
But this is not about me. It’s about the mother of an autistic student appealing to a seat of authority to hear her plea for her son, only to have that hard and fast rule cut her off with words left unspoken. Yes, she too got stopped cold by the time clock.
I gasped and remarked under my breath, “Let her finish for heaven’s sake.” Several people near me nodded in agreement.
Have our Johnston County Board of Education members become so cold and compassionless that their rules cannot be set aside just once to allow a mother to finish a single paragraph? Was there not one compassionate board member who could have made a motion to allow her to finish her plea?
I visited with Anita Dakin, the mother of Matthew, after her presentation, and she sadly told me that the last paragraph was the most important part of what she wanted to be heard.
What Ms. Dakin did not get to share was this: “I am asking the Johnston County Board of Education to do everything necessary to ensure that no exceptional children in the Johnston County school system ever have to deal with such a life-changing, desensitizing situation again.” She had earlier explained that her son’s teachers for two years and teaching assistants for three years had all left his school at once, leaving him distraught.
To this columnist, it was as if the board thought it had far weightier issues to deal with than to hear the deep concerns of the mother of an autistic child. After all, the clock on the wall was in charge and dictated she must cease advocating for her son and sit down.
I have a 16-year-old stepgrandson who is nonverbal autistic. Had I been cut off by the all-powerful three-minute clock while seeking to be heard on his behalf, the scene might have gotten a little ugly. There are times when what is morally right requires advocates for “the least of these.” Those who have the power are not always right. Silence is acceptance of the absence of compassion.
Decorum and rules are important for there to be order and fairness. I will never discount such. But there must be room within those rules to allow for compassion, a compassion that transcends the rules in favor of what is right.
A quote I often rely on when writing a column is as follows, though I do not know its origin: “What one is able to see depends on where one is standing.” From where I am standing, the Board of Education did an injustice to Ms. Dakin and her autistic son. Sometimes that clock just needs to be turned off.
Ned Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker and former executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.