Sunday, December 16, 2012

'Why the senseless violence?' Ask a teacher

As a former teacher and a parent of two elementary school students, I was horrified to hear the news about the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I’m sure my reaction to the news was similar to everyone’s in our country. I went from experiencing a feeling of disbelief, which turned to horror, and finally to anger. I am writing this article on behalf of the children who were murdered in their “safe-place.”

Easy Access

I do believe that children and young adults in our country have easy access to weapons, guns and knives, whether it’s in the family home or on the street. I do believe that our children across our nation experience bullying and teasing. I do believe that children in our country can find drugs of all sorts, prescription and illegal, in our nation’s middle schools and high schools. I do believe that many of our children suffer from developmental disabilities, learning disabilities and emotional disabilities; some take medication and some receive professional therapy and help. Many of the children I have taught have been able to navigate all of these temptations, troubles and disabilities because they have caring parents, teachers and community members who help keep them on the right track.  However, not all of the children I have taught have been so fortunate.

The Hidden Problem in Our Schools

While the media is busy reporting the story of this school shooting and parents are yelling at politicians to put gun-control law in effect, there is a hidden problem occurring in classrooms throughout our country that needs to be addressed. It is the story of the emotionally disturbed child. Ask any teacher you know and they will tell you, “Oh yes, a few years ago I had a student who was deeply troubled.” If you are a parent of a school-aged child I bet you have had an experience where your child was in a classroom with a child who behaved badly. Consider yourself lucky if your child has not endured their way through this experience.

I need to clarify something.  The children that I am writing about in this article are not the kids who tease or bully. They are students with severe emotional problems.  Responsible parents who raise children who are suffering from mental disabilities or illness often find themselves at a complete loss as to how to get help for their child.  Sometimes they must resort to doing the unthinkable and commit their child to a hospital because there is nowhere else to turn.  

These parents display extraordinary courage while carrying a broken heart inside of them. They try to get their children help so that others are kept safe from harm.  However, other parents are in complete denial and even refuse the help that is offered to their child.  This leaves all of our children at risk. These are not parents who are struggling living in poverty they are affluent parents who refuse to accept help for their child because of the stigma that is attached to mental illness.

I want to share my story because I want to illustrate how troubled little kids turn into angry, young adults. Emotionally or mentally disturbed behavior is most definitely not happening “out of the blue.” These children are identified by their peers and categorized  sometimes as early as pre-school age, as being scary, mean or, to use ‘kid-speak’ jerks. 

My Experience

I opened up the files of my 21 first grade students the week before school started to gather background information on my new class. Teachers are always excited for the first month of school because they get to learn about a whole new crop of students. We look forward to setting up classrooms, preparing lessons and learning about our new kids. 

When we look through student files it is our responsibility to gather information about students and their families. Do the students have any special needs? How were their grades last year? Has there been any change in home or family life? All these things are important to an educator and our kept confidential between the teacher, the principal, support services and the family. Teachers need to know this information so that they can prepare for a student’s individual learning or emotional needs.

I noticed that one of my incoming first graders had been removed from not one, but two preschools for being aggressive and not following school rules. This student attended a private school for kindergarten and the report for that school year did not have any information that “popped out” as being out of the ordinary.

The First Week of School

I identified the student who would go on to require a lot of my attention before the end of the first hour of school!  This little first grader could not sit still, keep their hands off of anyone, crawled under tables, pinched students, scribbled with markers all over desks and would not stop arguing with me or the other kids. It took every ounce of my patience to get through the day without losing my cool and raising my voice at this child.  It is the first day of FIRST GRADE! It’s supposed to be great!  By the second day, the student had begun to yell at other kids, climb on top of tables and desks, and was writing all over tables – even his own arms and hands.  Soon enough, I had to give him a “special seat” attached to my desk where he would not be distracted, be able to touch the other children or escape my attention for a minute.  Did I mention I had 20 other students in the class???


I called his previous schools to gather some information. Preschool #1 tells me he was expelled for trying to choke another student while saying, “I want you to die.” Preschool #2 tells me he was expelled for stamping a frog to death on the playground while screaming, “Die, die!” The report from the private school Principal is that the student had a rough year in kindergarten because there had been a huge fire in this child’s home and he was traumatized. The thought that goes through my mind is that I will need to watch this child every second to make sure he doesn’t hurt someone or himself.

Conference With Parents

We settle into a class routine. The children in my class begin to treat the out-of-control child like a class pet. They know he will not listen to them or interact appropriately so mostly they stay as far away as they can. My Principal has been in my classroom everyday to observe the child and write down her observations. We come up with a plan to get him to slowly engage with the other students in a safe way.  I keep this child next to me every second of the school day; he listens to me and knows I will not give him an inch. I spend my days teaching and simultaneously watching this child for potential eruptions and addressing them fast.  I lose ten pounds and I develop anxiety. It is a very challenging year.

The student’s parents are called in for a conference.  We discuss the child’s education and emotional needs.  The student does not have any learning disabilities in fact he is very bright. We discuss sending him to the school psychologist for a screening to see if the child has an emotional disability.  His parents aren’t too keen on this idea and say they will think about it.

Here lies the first problem in our schools.  Parents have to approve services for children with special learning or emotional needs.  When the Individuals with a Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was updated in 2004, the right for a school district to challenge a parent’s right to deny services was changed. The school district can no longer challenge this. It is 100% the choice of parents.

What does this mean?? It means that if parents say, “No” then all the other students in the class have to suffer because they have a classmate in their class who is completely disruptive.  Not only is this unfair to the other students, but it’s unfair to the other parents who want their children to receive a well-balanced education.  Why should all of the students have to suffer because one who needs emotional intervention is being kept from receiving it by his/her own parents? A school principal and teacher can identify a child who clearly needs help and come up with a service plan, but if the parents will not approve of the service plan that student will not get the help he or she most desperately needs.

If parents refuse to consent to the initiation of services, the school district cannot provide special education and related services and is legally prohibited from providing services through due process procedures.

First Marking Period- Report Card

My student’s report card reflects his abilities; his work is messy, his fine-motor skills need improvement and he needs to slow-down and put more effort into his work. As far as his behavior is concerned, he needs to work on keeping his hands to himself, not call out and work on his social skills. My school principal signs the report card and it goes home with the child.

The next day after school I have a small line of parents at my door, which is typical after report cards go home. Parents have questions that they would like answered. At the front of the line is my student’s mother. I dismiss my class only to be followed back into my classroom by this child’s mother, she is screaming at me at the top of her lungs and pointing her finger in my face saying, “How dare you!! How dare you put those ‘Needs Improvement’ marks on my child’s report card and write a comment that he needs to work on keeping his hands to himself. How will he ever get into college with that on his permanent record!!!”

I am alarmed at her reaction.  I try to diffuse her anger by staying calm and saying, “I would like to speak with you, but I can’t unless you calm down. If you can’t calm down we have to go speak in the principal’s office.” She breaks down crying and says, “I don’t know what to do with my son, I don’t know how to help him.” I tell her that her child is entitled to receive help through the school system she just has to be open to receiving it.

She says that she will think about it.

The Following Week

The parent goes to the principal and raises a fit. She demands that the comment be removed off of her child’s report card and threatens the school district with a lawsuit. The Superintendent is called in. We meet with the parents. Mom explains to us that her child is behaving inappropriately because he is gifted and he is bored. She claims he “acts-out” because the rest of the students are, “A bunch of mindless lemmings that will do whatever a teacher tells them to.”

My principal asks for my opinion, “Do you feel that this student needs harder work?” I say, “At this point no, we need to get him to complete his classroom work before we can give him anymore additional assignments.” I express my strong opinion for behavior support/intervention from the school psychologist.

His mother says, “No.”

The Superintendent tells me to remove the comment from the student’s report card.  Here lies the second problem in our schools.  School officials get backed into corners from parents who threaten legal action therefore disruptive children remain in the classroom.

I leave this meeting and go directly to my school union representative for advice. I am told to document everything that goes on during my school day, everyday with this child.

Second Half of the School Year

I don’t have any further interaction with the child’s parents. He does not receive any special services from school support staff. He is still very disruptive in class and makes very slow progress. I work extra hard to keep my classroom environment safe and positive. The children in the class are still afraid of this student and shy away from interaction with him. He is watched very closely when he goes to lunch and recess so that if he lashes out it will be stopped immediately.  His grades are average at best.

We can’t call Division of Youth and Family Services because there is no evidence of abuse. His basic human needs are being met by his family- he is clothed, sheltered and well fed. He has lots of toys. He is not suffering from neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. He is a very angry child and tries to get attention from other students by poking, pinching and antagonizing them.

Third Grade

The child’s teacher reports another explosive encounter with the child’s mother when she suggests that he receive counseling. This year in our school, we get a new security system and have new rules put in place regarding parent contact. Now parents need to report to the front office for check in and make appointments to speak with classroom teachers.  This helps to keep her away from her son’s teachers and verbally abusing them.

Fifth Grade

The child is suspended for two weeks because he tried to order explosives and bombs via computer during classroom free time. He tried to order explosives and have them sent to the school address. He has a wallet and a stolen credit card.

He is still not receiving school intervention from support staff. He is still very angry, has few friends and has very poor social skills. His grades are average to above average.  His parents send him to a private middle school.  I lose track of him, but I often wonder about him.

The Problem Defined

Children that are severely emotionally disturbed cannot be kicked out of school unless they harm others.  As teachers, we can identify these children, but we cannot overrule parental consent.  Many of these children have parents who are emotionally disturbed themselves.  In effect, all we can do is sit back and wait until something happens.

When something tragic happens everyone asks, “Why, why, why???” We teachers know why.  We watch disturbed, young children grow up without getting the help they need because their own parents are too proud or ignorant to allow it.

These parents cannot be reported to Child Protective Services because our laws do not recognize this as abuse.  The police cannot do anything because the child hasn’t caused any harm - yet. How can you arrest or lock-up a person because they have the potential to do something horrible?

Demand Change

We have to demand change.  Our definition of meeting our children’s mental health needs has to change.  We need to enhance the legislation that allows parents to refuse professional services for an emotionally disturbed child. 

In my opinion, this is child abuse.  Child abuse can be an act or a failure to act.  Schools should be able to independently report incidents of parents who refuse mental health services to Child Protective Services when a student’s behavior is dangerous or too disruptive to other students.  All of the children in a classroom suffer when a child with an emotional disability is not receiving the help they need because their own parents ignore the advice of professional educators.

Read about the gunman below and the characteristics that they all share if you do not think that mental health is the prime factor in school shootings.  I wonder what these students were like in elementary school.

December 14,th, 2012: 20-year-old gunman kills nearly 30 people, mostly children. Gunman is described as, “possibly suffering from developmental/emotional disability. Former classmates describe him as a, “loner, odd, keeps to himself, talked about “aliens and blowing things up.”

February 27th, 2012: 17-year-old gunman kills 3 students, severely injures 1 student, causes minor injury to 1 student and superficially injures another student. Gunman had history of violence, had been arrested twice prior to the shooting for disorderly conduct and had been attending an alternative school for children who have special academic or behavioral needs. A psychiatrist who examined the gunman testified that, “he sometimes loses touch with reality and suffers from hallucinations, psychosis and fantasies.”

January 5th, 2011: 17-year-old gunman kills school Vice-Principal and injures Principal. The gunman’s parents had transferred the killer to a new school because he was having disciplinary problems at his previous school.
February 5th, 2010:  14-year-old gunman kills one student. Psychologist evaluation found gunman had the emotional make-up of an 8-year-old and was acutely suicidal and severely depressed at the time of the shooting.
January 3rd, 2007: 18-year-old gunman kills one student. The gunman’s family described him to the court as suffering from mental illness.
February 3rd, 2004: 14-year-old killer stabs classmate 42 times. Killer’s mother describes son as suffering from severe mental illness, defense mental health experts said killer was a paranoid schizophrenic or at least delusional.
September 24th, 2003: 15-year-old gunman kills one student and critically injures another.  Six mental health experts at his trial testified that the killer had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, major depression in remission and an “emerging personality disorder.”

May 21st, 1998: 15-year-old gunman kills his parents, 2 students and wounds 25 others. Two court psychiatrists testified that gunman exhibited signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

December 1st, 1997: 14-year-old gunman kills three girls, injures 5 more. Gunman was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

September 25, 1996: 16-year-old gunman shoots and kills teacher. Found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital.

Today’s Links:
IDEA- Parents refusal to consent

PL 94-142 Education of the Handicapped Act

Understanding the differences between IDEA and Section 504
Current definition of Emotional Disturbance

Definition of Child Abuse

Read about one Mom who bravely sought help for her son


  1. Surfed in from Tom’s post on facebook. Very well written, informative and the personal account gives a good insight into how a problem case develops.

    A few immediate thoughts:

    - Parents have the right to refuse a school recommendation, but the school doesn’t have the right to refuse to teach a disruptive student? This seems lopsided.

    - A lot of underage crimes are attributed to mental illnesses. Are these really mental issues or ‘plea bargained’ into being a mental issue? There are plenty of adult criminals who work the legal system using an insanity plea to get an easier sentence...

    - If the schools get the right to enforce a solution or overrule the parent’s decision, can the school then also be held responsible if someone slips through the cracks in being diagnosed as a mental health case? i.e. Questions of ‘How did you not see this coming?’ or a lawsuit from the victims families.

    1. Hi Aadil,
      Thanks for reading & commenting. Unfortunately, a school can not refuse to teach a disruptive student as they are obligated by law (F.A.P.E.) to educate all children. Students can be moved to another school which can address their academic needs, but only with the parents approval.
      Your third point is excellent and probably the reason why schools cannot overrule parental decision. However, I think educators should be able to report a parent's refusal to act in their child's best interest.