Stacey Sphieler was an hour outside of Brandon when the principal of her son’s elementary school informed her that her son, 11-year-old Ace, had a serious outburst and was off to juvenile detention center.
After prayer and a few deep breaths, Sphieler turned her father’s red Dodge Challenger around and stepped on the gas.
“I had to stop myself from absolutely gunning it,” she laughed, recalling what was a pivotal day in her understanding of societal punishment, and the rights of children within a democratic process.
Spheiler arrived at the courthouse that day to see Ace sitting with a judge, and as she moved closer, recognized him – the same judge who had taken her rights and custody of her son a few years earlier, because of her battles with drugs and alcohol.
She looked down at Ace and saw purple and blue marks on his wrists from the handcuffs officers had placed on him. “There was my 11-year-old who has autism and cerebral palsy, who is not a threat to anyone, with handcuffs marks on his wrist.”
Ace was given two choices, either handcuffs or be tazed. He chose the first and was led to a police car.
About a decade ago, Stacey Sphieler was the one in the back seat of a cop car, on the wrong side of the law and battling addictions, which began shortly after her son, who arrived three months early, was born.
As a result of his early birth, areas of his brain that control obedience and impulsivity were not fully developed. The doctors diagnosed Spiehler’s son with autism and minor cerebral palsy.
The years after his diagnosis brimmed with darkness and heartbreak, and Spiehler escaped the shadows and hurt by turning to substances.
“A lot of people who have children with disabilities develop some kind of manic, out of control behaviors. I became an alcoholic and a drug addict,” she said.
Stacey Sphieler told me about her life while sitting in Lamar Hall on a crisp fall morning in October, the kind of day many students take for granted, but not Sphieler.
For her, it was a day to chase her dream of becoming a journalist, and to make her son proud.
Writing and reporting has allowed her to transform the pain she felt into hope that she can make a better future for individuals everywhere.
After therapy and counseling, Spiehler found herself with a steady job as a restaurant manager and staying in a sober living facility in Jackson. Surrounded by a community of women, there she got health insurance, and time with her son every other week.
Sphieler described that lifestyle as safe, but passionless. Fortunately, there was a larger plan for Sphieler’s life. She quit the restaurant.
Though her safety net had just vanished, she took it as a sign of better things to come.
Her interest in reporting began in earnest. Her passion for journalism began earlier though, sitting in a diner, inspired by Mississippi journalist Anna Wolf’s reporting on fraud within the country’s medical system and also by investigative reporter and author Jerry Mitchell.
Protecting individuals against trauma and punishment was what Spheiler wanted to write about, an ambition only furthered by the incident when Ace was handcuffed. Trauma is what silences people, and makes them less participatory in the democratic process, she explained.
She will never forget that day, she said. In between her tears, Sphieler was comforted by the composure of her son. “He was sitting there, cracking jokes with the judge, telling him how good I had been doing with my sobriety, and assuring me that everything was going to be OK.”
Sphieler didn’t take this event lightly. She was angry. She told administrative staff, the counselors, and teachers that her son deserved better. Few understood.
“One lady compared my autistic son to the Parkland school shooter,” she recalled.
Sphieler found consolation with other parents, joining an educational advocacy group called Families as Allies, which provides assistance and support for parents and children like Ace. She now serves on its board of directors and is president elect.
Spheiler cited a report from Rutherford County Tennessee, revealing that a youth court judge there was putting over half of the offenders in jail, including an 8-year-old girl. Profiting from the county’s youth court jail is a problem, she said.
As someone who has faced trauma in her childhood and adult life, Sphieler knows firsthand its effects. “Trauma affects every single portion of a person, and until we become more aware of trauma, we are going to keep the cycle of punishing, and with punishment, comes more trauma.”
There’s an undeniable correlation between those who have endured trauma and those now battling drug and alcohol addiction. Many of Spheiler’s friends have gone down this road because they haven’t been given the proper counseling to heal, she said.
This lack of awareness was obvious to Spiehler when Ace was detained by police and a student resource officer later said she needed to beat him on the head more. “It’s a really common belief in Mississippi, that if you just hit a kid more, they’ll listen.”
Motivated by her son, her drive for justice is undeniable, and expressing herself though a free press can provoke change. “There’s no such thing as a bad kid, and that’s the hill I’ll die on,” she said.
Alexandra Schupler is a Sophomore Integrated Marketing Communications major from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Alex is currently involved with Grove Grocery and The Ole Miss Ambassadors. After college, Alex plans to continue writing with dreams of living in New York City.