GARY — A Gary father is expressing disbelief this week after his fifth-grader, who is autistic, was given a trophy dubbing him the "most annoying male" for the school year.
Rick Castejon said the award was given to his 11-year-old son at a fifth-grade awards luncheon for Bailly Preparatory Academy students last month by a special education teacher in front of students, parents and the school's principal Carlita Royal.
“We were blindsided. We just weren’t expecting it,” Castejon said. "As a principal or teacher, you should never let this happen to any student."
Gary Community School Corp. emergency manager Peter Morikis confirmed the incident in a statement Monday, saying he met immediately with family upon learning of the incident and that disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved.
"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," Morikis said in a prepared statement to The Times. "We extend our deepest apologies to the impacted student, the family and anyone else who take offense to this unfortunate occurrence."
A part of a regular end-of-year awards ceremony, parents fell silent as the trophy was presented to the 11-year-old student at a May 23 school awards luncheon at the Merrillville Golden Corral, Castejon said.
It's inscribed “BAILEY PREPARATORY ACADEMY 2018-2019 MOST ANNOYING MALE.”
Not wanting to create a scene, the father said he tried to leave the award on a table at the Golden Corral at the end of the lunch, but was approached by his son's teacher reminding him not to forget the trophy. He said the teacher acted as if she were trying to play the incident off like a funny joke.
Morikis declined to comment Monday on the employment status of any school personnel involved in the matter, nor would he identify the teacher involved.
The Times will be filing a freedom of information act request for the teacher's employment status Tuesday.
"An apology was extended on behalf of the district to the family, and disciplinary action was taken against personnel involved," Morikis said in a statement. "We acknowledge the potential impact that an experience like this could have on a child's mental well-being, self-esteem and overall level of comfortability in a learning environment going forward."
Castejon said it wasn't until he went home after the awards ceremony and shared what happened with his wife later that night that the reality of what had happened set in with him.
He said throughout the school year, his son's teachers routinely called home with concerns about how to handle the fifth-grader's behavior, but it wasn’t until his son was presented the “Most Annoying Male” award that Castejon said he felt real concern. Now, Castejon is left wondering if these calls home were contributing factors in the trophy his son was presented last month.
Castejon described some of his son’s mannerisms as a student with autism. The 11-year-old is nonverbal, occasionally rocks back and forth and can become easily emotional, his father said.
“They called me all the time if he didn’t want to work, would cry or would have a breakdown,” Castejon said. “A special needs education teacher should know how to handle these things.”
After the May awards lunch, Castejon said his family contacted school administration. He said his family met with Morikis to discuss his concerns and was assured the district would take action.
He said the emergency manager discussed putting the teacher on a two-week suspension and would possibly fire the teacher.
At a May 27 fifth-grade graduation celebration at the school, Castejon said his son's teacher was noticeably absent.
Castejon said prior to the award incident, his family already had plans to move to Valparaiso and does not intend to send his son to Gary schools next year. The father said he was happy with Morikis' response to the incident but is speaking out now to ensure other students with special needs never experience the same kind of treatment.
“We just don’t want any other kids to go through this,” Castejon said. “Just because they have special needs doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings.”