rang out from the woods at midnight. A black pickup truck draped in Confederate
flags circled her tent at three a.m., menacing. Kids on school buses then
parents at school board meetings chanted what so many only whisper:
world where the more visibly disabled we are, the more invisible we become,
this brutal, violent, raw show of feeling refreshes me like cool lemonade
on the fourth of July. The ugly truth has come out of hiding at last.
we sense on the streets? It's not our paranoia. It's real.
Flagpole Lady" Lesneski sparked this show of hatred when she tied herself
to the flagpole in front of her son's Washington County, Pennsylvania, grade
school for twenty days and twenty nights.
she do such a desperate thing? They messed with her son, seven-year-old
Max, in violation of a federal court order. J.B.
Dee, what made you do it?
years I had battled the school district for what my son needs. And I'd
an interview with Dee Lesneski
by Josie Byzek
photo by Tom Olin
This interview first appeared in Mouth magazine in
went to due process three times. I've filed numerous state complaints.
We went to mediation. Every process we've gone through has said the
school district must put someone proficient in sign in class with Max.
Dee Lesneski chained herself
to a flagpole in the parking lot of her son's elementary school. The school
had refused to provide a sign language interpreter, as ordered by the
court, and would not allow her son Max access to his own asthma medication.
Due to their denseness at missing his distress and his signed need for
his medication, he suffered a life-threatening asthma attack. Outraged,
Dee stood her ground at the flagpole for 20 days, until the school backed
down and agreed to do as the court had ordered them to do. The police
would not arrest her because they viewed the flagpole as US property,
not school property. Nonetheless, in vigilante fashion, the "good
citizens" of Pennsylvania, USA expressed their displeasure at her
daring to stand up for the rights of her son by shooting at her, and trying
to gas her in her tent with automobile exhaust fumes.
is in a regular classroom. He has a hearing impairment, and Down Syndrome,
and asthma. He knows how to sign. What he needs is someone to communicate
with. In the beginning of his schooling, no one signed or interpreted
for him when he signed.
that point, Max's life was in danger. He had no one to to communicate
with if he needed his asthma medicine. The last hearing was in February,
2000, and the hearing officer said to the school, finally, 'I'm a little
tired of this. This has got to happen, and I'm giving you thirty days
to have it in place.' That meant by the end of March. In May, nothing
was in place, so I went to federal court. And the federal judge told them
that they needed to do everything that had been ordered in February.
the first day of school in August this last year, Max had an asthma attack.
No one knew what it was. I had gone to the school to check on him. He
was blue. He was telling them, in sign, "Call Mommy please!"
They said, "He's been doing that all morning. We have no idea what he's
saying." No one there knew sign. No one.
him, he was stabilized, he went back to his classroom. And I was so angry.
I didn't know what to do. I had done everything I could. I had gone all
the way to federal court, and a federal judge, Judge Cindrich, had told
them what they had to do. What could I do that a federal judge can't do?
For God's sakes, what could I do?
'This is it. I am not leaving this building until my son has what the
court ordered.' Well, they got me out of the building. When I got outside,
completely frustrated, I realized I could make a stand. I have a ten-year-old
who plays baseball, so I carry a lawn chair in the car to watch his games.
And Max was learning to jump rope, so I had a rope in the car.
up to the flagpole which is the only thing standing near the school
besides a dumpster and I tied myself to the flagpole.
said, "I am not leaving here until my son gets the services he needs."
That's how it started. I thought I'd be out there three hours, tops.
What did you expect would happen?
an hour or so, I thought, somebody will be out here saying 'Okay, we'll
do what the court ordered.'
Well, they didn't. They sent a police officer to arrest me. But they
couldn't arrest me, because the flagpole made it my first amendment right.
I did not know that.
God I didn't tie myself to the dumpster. They could have arrested me.
I would have been trespassing. The flagpole made it freedom of speech.
wasn't prepared. The flagpole was on blacktop in the middle of a large
parking lot. It was hot, 85 degrees that day. No trees, no shade, no nothing.
I wound up staying for twenty days and nights. The media showed up almost
immediately, and came back every day. The school hated that.
was shot at from the wooded area by the school. The shot that was fired
hit my girlfriend's van. She had brought her daughter, who has spina bifida,
and she had to take her girl home. We didn't know if they were going to
shoot again or not.
a truck tried to run me over, at about three in the morning. It was an
older, black truck with Confederate flags in the windows. The form of
muscular dystrophy I have is called channel myopathy. When I get cold,
I tense up and stay like that. So when it rained or got cold, I got in
daughter had come to spend the night with me and it was starting to get
cold. The truck couldn't get close enough to the flagpole to run us over,
so it backed up and filled the tent with exhaust fumes.
Didn't you call the police?
police? They did absolutely nothing.
didn't try to find out who shot at me, or who drove the truck. The security
guard the school put there told us, 'You're not going to die while the
kids are here at school. But when we leave at four o'clock, there will
be no protection.' They didn't want me dying during school hours, but
it was okay afterwards.
would be school buses pulling up and kids would have flags hanging out
the windows with little signs saying, 'Justice For Max,' 'Go Max!' And
busloads of kids would be cheering.
then there would be other buses with kids giving me the finger, saying,
the school closed at four o'clock, clear through the middle of the night,
people would drive by, circling the flagpole, gawking and heckling.
Why did you stay?
instead of me being dead in the parking lot it could be my son dead at
school from not getting ans asthma treatment.
long as I was in their face, they were cautious about what care my son
How did the press threat you?
did talk-radio shows and a local talk show host told me he would put a
drive on to get money if I would consider institutionalizing my child.
had probably a hundred people say that what I was doing by putting him
out into public school was humiliating and degrading to him, that it was
a very aggressive idea to bring to a small town. That I actually was sick
and 'in denial' because I 'didn't recognize his needs.'
You didn't know about the disability rights
knew there was a disability movement. I just didn't know there was anybody
that would actually work for me right now!
my kids started making phone calls, saying, 'My mom's tied to the flagpole.
She's getting into a lot of trouble. Can you come help?' I have five children.
One of my oldest called here [Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living,
the CIL in Washington, Pennsylvania]. He talked to John Lorence. John
said, 'Absolutely. We'll be there.'
from TRIPIL came out and stayed the whole 20 days with me. I was never
by myself. I owe these people my soul. They went through everything that
I went through. The rain, the cold, the harassment, the sun, not having
bathroom facilities, days without eating or drinking.
fully supported everything I decided to do. The school would come out
and say, 'We'll put somebody with him. Why don't you go home and rest
up?' Well, next week wasn't going to serve the purpose.
wanting piloting lessons, I was just wanting what a federal judge said
was necessary for my son.
Where do you see yourself and Max in our
not camparing myself on any level to Rosa Parks, but when she got on the
bus, she wasn't leaving the front seat. I wasn't leaving that flapole
until the school did what a federal judge ordered for my son's education.
is a damn shame that a little boy who wouldn't say a bad thing
loving someone to death would be the biggest harm he could do that
there would be a protest about him being in a public school!
was asked by a number of interviewers, what could be gained by what I
did. The only thing I know is that kids are kids. It's what we teach the
children that makes a difference.
does have a signing aide with him at all times now. He's in second grade,
with the other second graders, doing regular science and health. He gets
help with reading and math. But other than that, he's doing the same curriculum
as the other second graders.
harder for him. I spend three hours a night working with him because they
don't modify the communication on his subjects to allow for his hearing
loss. It's like all they can see is the Down Syndrome.
still get mail saying to remove him from school. The school district made
me explain why I wanted him in public school, to parents who wanted to
sue me to have Max removed. All they kept saying was, 'That animal needs
to go home.'
I still cannot go to open house like any other parent. His Christmas program
is next Monday. I will be heckled the whole time.
still there. Standing in line at the grocery, people will leave the line
when I have Max with me so they don't have to look at him. Being the last
one into the doctor's office but the first one called. It's there.
You work at TRIPIL now. What are you learning?
know how when you wake up in the spring, you can just smell that spring
is here? You can smell the rain? It's like all of a sudden, I realize
what it's about. My eyes are opened.
had no idea I was going through life with my eyes closed.
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