POWHATAN – At the ripe old age of 10, Alex Campbell has already been making a name for himself in Virginia legislative circles.
In the last few years alone, he has come to know state senators and representatives as he advocates for mandating regulations on the use of restraint and seclusion in Virginia’s schools and has been recognized with a national award for his work.
In July, Alex, the son of Sean and Kelly Campbell of Powhatan, will head to Washington, D.C. to talk to U.S. senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill about restraint and seclusion and the need to make sure schools are funded adequately so students with special needs can be educated properly.
From July 10 to 12, Campbell said his son was invited to participate in the Council for Exceptional Children’s legislative summit. After meeting with policy analysts to learn how to better talk to legislators, he will have the opportunity to speak with congressmen and senators.
Then in August, Alex will attend a banquet in Williamsburg where he will receive the 2016 Catalyst for Change Award by The Arc of Virginia, which promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Campbell said.
Meanwhile, Alex is taking all the attention in stride.
“I feel proud of myself but it feels kind of rude to sit there and brag about yourself,” said Alex, a rising sixth-grader at Pocahontas Middle School.
A personal history
The issues of restraint and seclusion of children are close to Alex’s heart because of his own experiences.
In 2011, during first grade, Alex – a talkative, inquisitive child on the autism spectrum – was dealt with by the principal of his school at the time by subjecting the little boy to multiple instances of restraint and seclusion. His principal would force him into a converted closet and slide the teacher’s desk across the door, blocking Alex from leaving the closet, he said.
The school, which the family does not identify, did not notify Alex’s parents and he didn’t tell them at first either.
“Most of the time I was confused because he wouldn’t tell me why I was going in there,” Alex said.
His parents did find out a few months into the school year and were shocked on many levels, Sean Campbell said. They were surprised to find that there were no state laws prohibiting these discipline methods.
They were also surprised by what behavior by Alex was garnering him this treatment, including running around, standing on chairs, tearing paper, and hanging on a door. They could be disruptive behaviors, but didn’t present imminent danger, which is the only reason Campbell said he believed seclusion and restraint would be necessary.
“We went and talked to the people. We were told there was nothing that could be done because there were no laws, there were no policies, there were no regulations,” he said.
A counselor later had Alex create a little booklet with drawings to express his feelings on what had happened, and it ended up being a catalyst for Alex becoming a voice for other children who have been affected by seclusion and restraint.
Finding his voice
In 2013, Campbell took a class on partnering in policymaking that was designed for adults who either have disabilities or are parents of a child with disabilities. He shared his son’s story with someone from The Arc of Virginia, which promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That started the ball rolling.
Alex worked with the Arc and the disAbility Law Center of Virginia to create a bill in 2014 to direct the Commission on Youth to study the lack of protections in Virginia and report their findings back to the Virginia General Assembly. In October 2014, Alex testified to the Commission on Youth on the issues of seclusion and restraint.
Inspired by Alex’s story, Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-31, and Del. Richard Bell, R-20, drafted two separate bills for the 2015 session of the Virginia General Assembly— Senate Bill 782 and House Bill 1443—that would require the Virginia State Board of Education to adopt formal regulations on restraint and seclusion in schools. Both bills were signed in March 2015 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“Seclusion and restraint may be a tool but it does not address the cause. The children who were repeatedly subjected to seclusion and restraint were really children suffering from some other issue,” Favola said. “The seclusion and restraint is not addressing the cause. It is stopping the behavior for a moment. Or is it really stopping it? It is just removing it.”
Favola said that upon meeting Alex during his time testifying to the Commission on Youth, she was impressed with the “remarkable young man” and his conviction about the issues under discussion.
“Alex believes very strongly that he was a good person, he was trying his best, he wanted to be a good student, he wanted to fit in and be liked,” she said. “He felt like the way he was treated made him so sad and hurt him at a very deep level. He had that sense that it wasn’t just. It wasn’t right.”
Favola was so impressed with Alex during the whole process and in follow-up visits that she was one of the people who recommended him for the national Yes I Can Award. His father and one of his teachers at Charterhouse School, which he was attending at the time, also recommended him.
The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) gives the awards each year to young people, ages 9 to 20, who are making incredible contributions to their communities as artists, scholars, advocates, technology experts and successful students and employees.
“The recipients of the Yes I Can Awards are courageous and hardworking young people who are supported by families, friends and professionals who believe in them,” said Alexander T. Graham, CEC executive director.
Alex, who was one of 12 recipients, received one of two awards given for self-advocacy. He was honored at the Yes I Can awards ceremony on April 15 at the CEC’s 2016 Convention and Expo in St. Louis.
Favola said she nominated Alex for the Yes I Can award because of his courage and tenacity.
“He really stuck with the legislative process and he made a difference. I was very proud of him,” she said. “Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he really stepped up and said, ‘I am a good person and I am going to make the world better.’ I was really impressed by him and what motivated him.”
Alex attended the event with his parents and little brother, Jack, and they made a vacation out of the experience. During the conference, Campbell said he was surprised at how much attention Alex received, both during and outside of event activities.
“When we were there people would stop him on the street and ask for selfies and asked for autographs. All of the winners had their pictures plastered all over the conference center. They had about 4,000 attendees from across the nation,” Campbell said.
Alex simply said he was “excited and surprised and proud of myself.”
As a result of the award, Alex was chosen by the United Methodist Family Services as its Featured Champion and pictured on the front of its Spring 2016 newsletter.
This spring, he also transitioned back to public school, moving from Charterhouse School to Pocahontas Middle School. Campbell said all of the teachers and administrators at PMS have been fantastic with his son.
Campbell said he and his wife are excited for Alex and have watched him grow and find his voice through all of these experiences.
“I think it has helped Alex learn to use his voice. In other words, it has helped him to express his needs. To let people know what is it he needs to be successful,” Campbell said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.