Luke Horine grabbed his brother DJ’s hand and tugged, silently resisting the slow march from the life skills classroom to the washing machine in Hamilton Southeastern High School.
Luke, who is largely nonverbal, had been assigned the task of fishing the wrestling team's dirty singlets and warm-up clothes from a pushcart so tall they had to bend inside to reach. DJ pulled on Luke’s gloves for him, then they hauled the smelly garments.
Sometimes the odor lingered on their clothing for hours.
DJ, who worked as a peer tutor in his brother’s special education classroom, said he was uncomfortable with the work Luke was required to do. So, when no one else was around, he tossed in the laundry himself. DJ told IndyStar he didn't bring up the task to his mom because she communicated regularly with the teachers. He assumed she knew.
"It’s kind of twisted but OK," DJ said he thought.
Months later, Luke’s laundry assignment would spark a debate: Was he gaining experience in a key life skill or being exploited?
Luke was diagnosed with autism, bipolar disorder and seizures. And many schools in Indiana have special education students complete tasks such as laundry or cleaning the cafeteria, said Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, a nonprofit organization that serves and advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.
"Life skills are important for everyone to learn, and I’m glad the school is thinking about that," Dodson said. "It does bother me that these are things that they would not have children without disabilities do. It does make you stop and pause. If they don't make kids without disabilities do it, should they really be making kids with disabilities? … Is that really the best we can do?"
'Against his will'
Luke's mother Mayme Horine said she was horrified to learn what Luke was doing in school. She found out when she overheard DJ consoling Luke that the rubber gloves in the kitchen were hers for washing dishes, not his for doing laundry.
Not only was Luke's leaving the classroom a violation of his Individualized Education Program, Horine argued, it also was exploitation.
"He's lost his learning time," the Noblesville woman said. "He's been used for somebody else's convenience. He's been exploited, and he was doing something against his will. And nobody was held accountable."
Horine said she immediately contacted high school and district officials.
She discovered that Luke's teacher wrote about the laundry detail in a progress report dated Dec. 17, 2015: "Luke does wrestling laundry with 4-5 prompts." Contrary to DJ's description, the report also said: "Luke seems to enjoy this job."
Horine said she didn't mind Luke learning how to do laundry. But why, Horine asked, was he handling laundry that might have blood, ringworm or other bodily fluids on it? And why was there no progression to another task?
Tom Bell, director of Exceptional Learners for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, said privacy laws prevent him from commenting specifically on Luke's situation, other than to say Horine's complaint was brought to the administration's attention and "promptly resolved."
He did not respond when asked if the school still has students in special education classes doing the wrestling team's laundry.
Luke, now 19, stopped doing the wrestling team’s laundry during the 2015-16 school year, and Horine said she assumed the school ended the program.
'A missed opportunity'
But late last year, Horine said she learned the program had continued with other special education students. Even though her son is no longer in that program, she said she was upset for other children. Horine contacted district officials and school board members in January to express her concern.
"It's not just that the kids are being neglected," Horine said, "I mean the work they're doing being demeaning or unnecessary, but they're being neglected in that this is their time to learn. And I think it's upsetting to me as much what they're having to do as what they're not getting to do. This is a missed opportunity for them."
It is unclear what, if anything, changed after that conversation.
Bell said the district offers "various opportunities to facilitate the development of vocational skills," such as working in preschool classrooms, school cafeterias, school offices and athletic departments. It also offers vocational opportunities outside of school, such as coffee shops, restaurants and car washes.
Bell said "safety guidelines are in place for various activities," but did not explain what protocols were in place to protect students doing laundry.
Keith Butler, staff attorney for the education team at Indiana Disability Rights, said situations like Luke's are fact-sensitive. Just because a student is doing laundry doesn't mean it's wrong. The student should be doing a task that provides a "substantial educational benefit."
"You still have a right to progress in your education and build skills," Butler said. "Is the program you have designed to do that? If it isn’t, that’s a problem."
At Hamilton Southeastern, Bell said: "A student or parent can opt out of any vocational tasks and jobs."
Horine disagreed. She said she felt Luke was forced to do the laundry because he had limited communication skills and could not refuse, as other students in the classroom had.
Horine said children like her son don't have a voice. They need someone to speak for them.
"They rely on us to make sure that they have the opportunities that we can provide for them," she said. "And we set how far they can go and how high they can go. And limiting them in the one environment that they have — certainly during this time period in their lives — by not offering them the opportunity in schools, it's very disheartening for me and definitely a disservice for the kids."
Dodson, executive director of The Arc, encourages parents of children with disabilities to be hypervigilant and feel comfortable asking questions about the educations their kids are receiving.
"I think they need to not be afraid at all to push the school to do things differently," Dodson said. "Push them to their full potential so they can learn as many independent skills as possible, so they have opportunities ahead of them."
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