Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When the Teacher is the Bully

Now, I'm really mad.

The federal General Accounting Office (GAO), released a report yesterday on the widespread abuse of tactics used to discipline or restrain special needs students. One of the cases they will discuss will be that of a boy named Cedric Napolean from Texas who was killed in school while teachers were restraining him. Despite his pleas that he couldn't breathe, teachers ignored his protests. Soon Cedric was dead. A dozen of his classmates watched what happened.

Are our special needs children inmates or students? With discipline tactics like that, I don't know what to say except that what is happening in these schools is a great American shame. I am in tears.

I am mad at so many people. I am mad at the teachers for using these tactics on our kids but I'm even more mad at the school system for placing these students in such an inappropriate environment that the child's safety was at risk. Obviously, these teachers couldn't handle these children. I would hope that if it was me, I'd rather quit my job then go to work where I was so over-the-edge that I could actually inflict harm on a child. Really, one must question the difference between this type of teacher and a teacher who molests his student. Both are abusive and damage the child's ability to trust others as well as trust themselves.

This is why we must all advocate for the most appropriate educational setting for our children and then make sure that these people are educating and treating our child appropriately. Having to be restrained (until death) as a means of disciplining a child or being locked in a time-out space for hours means that the school and their staff are not equipped to teach nor care for such a child.

I remember I used to get calls almost everyday from Logan's first nursery school and then his second nursery school started doing the same thing. Finally, after a few months, the school reduced the number of hours he could stay in class. Soon after this decision was made, he bit a child really hard and then I took him out and never brought him back. It was clear to me that this school stressed him out. It was also around this time I sought an evaluation and found out he was very challenged and delayed.

Soon after that, when we sent him to a special ed school in a small self-contained class, everything changed. He was happy to go to school and it took a while but I was no longer afraid of my phone ringing. At a meeting where I was just going to ask the special ed school system for an increase in occupational therapy sessions, I had a new administrator and she said that he should be in an integrated class where half of the kids were typical. I was surprised but elated. My baby was getting better, I thought.

At first, when he went to the new school he started to improve but a few months later, his teacher told me that his behavior had regressed. He even chewed on playground mat rubber and dried up leaves at playground time. I could tell that things weren't going right but I had no idea that there would be better schools for him. Wouldn't someone from the school tell me if there were? Aren't they the experts? I thought that since he was in a good school, that they could help him to the extent that he could possibly be helped. WRONG! I was so clueless.

Within, special education, there are subspecialties too, as I finally learned. That school botched things up and never told me that they were thinking of asking him to leave. They finally told me that Logan had to go when it was the middle of the summer when all other special education placements in schools were filled. If they had told me earlier, I would have had a chance to visit other schools and possibly reserve a seat. But thanks to them, this was impossible. I always thought special ed schools would be understanding of special needs children and their families but I was wrong. They make mistakes too.

Even they told me very late, I am grateful that they finally came to the conclusion that they couldn't help him. Luckily, despite the poor timing, I found a seat for him in a good school that was suddenly was vacated by a child who moved. He has flourished in this school. His gifts are able to come out and he has really qualified people to help him work on the skills he lacks. This is what happens when children are placed in the right setting.

Sadly however, this new school was Logan's FIFTH preschool and he was only four years old at the time he started. The last three schools were special education placements. This means that he was "in the system" for only 1.3 years and already had been to three special ed pre-schools with none of the changes being initiated by me, the parent. This begs the question. Does anyone know what the hell they are doing? With Logan, I think the answer was NO.

The fact remains; a child is dead. It's time to wake up and start the shouting. I just went on Google News and the GAO report only caught the eye of just 17 media outlets. And only one of the top five newspaper outlets covered this story. Thank you USA Today and The Washington Post. The story of the swine flu causing two deaths, (tragic as it is) and hundreds of children sick in New York City created over 2,500 media placements, and perhaps did so daily. These don't include the worldwide swine flu stories which today made more than 4,700 placements. Believe me, it's not easy to talk about these things especially when schools are closing left and right in my city. But after hearing of this report, all I can ask myself is how many more of our children have to die before we get more than 17 journalists who care? Or more productively, how can we convince people that the problems of our children impact everyone's lives, special needs or not? Here's a quick and easy example: if ADHDers are prone to car accidents, wouldn't you want to somehow cure or prevent ADHD? After all, car accidents caused by ADHD drivers have the potential to kill people who don't have ADHD.

While I don't believe my child is at risk for death at school, we have to make sure that they aren't even taunted or treated unfairly by the teacher as described in the articles linked to this post. I am sure this could happen with some our Asperger's and ADHD kids who are in general education classrooms where they may not necessarily be restrained but they could be treated unfairly by the teacher who doesn't understand special needs children. Can you imagine if the one person that your child is supposed to trust in school is mean to him and even taunts him? Hmmmm, I wonder who the school bullies would pick as the ideal victim?

Photo: Logan on a school bus at a school trip with preschool #2. Because of his behavior, he was not allowed to go unless I came with him. At this school, there were many days when he was forced to work isolated from the other students. Most of the teachers were caring and tried their best with him but the school's high turnover brought in a teacher that was not so understanding. I could see the disdain in her face when she looked at Logan. The same week she began teaching there, he started biting other children when he had never done that before. Coincidence? I think not. Photo 2: Logan playing with a friend during a dance/music activity at his last preschool about 6-7 months before he was asked to leave.

P.S. If you are curious about your state's procedures, visit page 6 on the full report.


Kim said...


I'm amazed that it took so long to get national notice. I've seen and heard stories of stuff like this for years. As a result, my son's IEP has a requirement that no discipline measures can be taken without notifying me immediately. And while he uses a Rifkin? chair to work in, because he enjoys the chair, the chair cannot be used as a restraint.

On the other side though, there is one child in his classroom that can get so violent that the aides end up injured. But even then, I have yet to ever hear of them sitting on that child, or sending that child into isolation without an adult present.

As far as your son's preschools, I don't know. I would think that they should have communicated problems to you far sooner than they did. But since they are private schools there is nothing requiring them to notify you, or even to keep you in the loop. I'm glad you finally got him in a good school.

Cate said...

Accolades to you! In a brief scan of your blog, you seem like one of the most realistic and pro-active Special Needs Moms I have come across in almost 20 years working with special needs kids. Yours is a wonderful example of how to advocate for your child's needs. First and foremost, YOU have to be realistic and accept your child's needs and what kind of environment can best meet them. The school may or may not inform you of all the options. When a parent insists on a more mainstream placement even though their child can't handle it or the teacher does not have the proper training, everyone suffers. Especially the child and their parents, but also the staff and the other children. It takes just one misplaced student to bring the learning process to a complete halt for dozens of other students. No learning takes place for anyone, least of all the misplaced student.

Some teachers are bullies, but I would be willing to bet that the one who suffocated her student in Texas was not. More likely when she decided to become a teacher she never dreamed she would be forced to deal with oppositional, defiant, volatile and potentially violent kids who had no business being placed in her classroom to begin with. More likely, she had no psychiatric or behavioral training and was completely unsupported by her administration. People who go into teaching expect to teach, not ameliorate mental disorders and severe behavior problems. They are not psychiatric technicians or behavior specialists and do not expect to work on psychiatric wards. Nor are they EVER equipped to do so. They are trained to teach. Yet many public school classrooms now resemble psychiatric day rooms more than they bear any resemblance to classrooms.

I know this is special education blasphemy, but in my experience, accommodation simply does not happen. Lawsuits and legislation will not even make it happen because teachers are neither willing nor trained and our society is unwilling to provide the funding for it.

I have been on both sides of this issue for over 25 years as the parent of a gifted child with a learning disability and as a Paraeducator. My child's accommodations were stapled to his IEP and never even looked at by his teachers, many of whom did not even know he had an IEP. And I worked for the Special Education Department! Later, I worked in a classroom where I routinely overheard conversations between teachers discussing their refusal to implement provisions of student IEP's or design appropriate accommodations for their students.

Cate said...

In California it has now been decided that special needs students will be placed by academic ability without regard to their diagnosis or disability. Thus students from violent drug-ridden homes whose learning delays are the result of poor socialization and oppositional, defiant, bullying behavior are lumped in the same classrooms with medically fragile kids and those who are on the autism spectrum. Throw in a couple of drug babies and a few kids with syndromes, and you have a recipe for absolute disaster. I've seen it, been harmed by it, seen children harmed by it and am no longer willing to devote my talents and training to teaching special needs kids under those conditions.

It is time to demand a change from the current (failed) model of trying to address mental health and behavioral issues in public schools. Such problems must be ameliorated FIRST! If a child cannot sit still and pay attention, recognize the teacher's authority to direct his actions, refrain from screaming, hitting, kicking, biting or other disruptive behavior or comply with simple instructions without getting an M&M every three minutes, they are at high risk of being mentally or physically harmed in a public school setting. Public schools simply are not funded or staffed at a level that would allow these kinds of needs to be adequately accommodated. I'm just telling it like it is, don't shoot the messenger. I used to think all kids could be accommodated in public schools too. Now I realize that the education of some students should take place in a setting where their behavior can be safely controlled by those trained and willing to work with behavior disordered kids. More kids will continue to die if we don't get back to a model of teachers teaching and mental health professionals treating disturbed and behavior disordered students so they are ready and able to benefit from a public school setting BEFORE they are placed in your child's classroom.

Jenn said...

Thank you for writing. I hope your comments were read by the readers because they are so important. I have heard of kids with extremely poor conduct going to psychiatric hospital-based schools and that seems so much better, doesn't it? As I said in my post, I think there are subspecialties of special ed and luckily my son was able to go to a preschool that was prepared to deal with his issues and because they were able to address that, he learned A LOT!!!!!!!!! I didn't know how smart he really was until he went to that school. However, kids just need to be placed in an appropriate setting and when parents are forced to put kids in the wrong setting, inevitably, there is headache, heartache, and learning and teaching becomes extremely difficult.