Sunday, December 02, 2012

Barbarism In America

I spent yesterday morning crying onto my keyboard and I'm posting this after a great deal of hesitation because it's so damned upsetting. But I think everyone needs to be aware that it is apparently legal in the US to torture school children. (You'll have to watch a commercial first.)

(Update: Apparently, this video is not playing for some of you. Here's the direct link to the ABC website.)

What's wrong with people? This is not therapy, not even in the loosest use of the word. Electric shocks, solitary confinement, stuffing people in bags, beating a person until he dies: this is abuse and torture. I would be appalled to learn these things are happening in prisons, to adults, but we're talking about school children, most of whom, apparently have special needs. The report uses the word "barbaric." That's the word I would use too.

I understand that this is a report from the mainstream media, notorious for sensationalization, but no one is denying these things are happening and a quick internet search reveals thousands of other documented cases, from reliable sources, of these things happening. And still, the American Association of School Administrators, as reported here, is standing in opposition to federal legislation that would make this kind of abuse illegal. I doubt they're standing alone. What's wrong with people?

How did we get to a place in which a boy can be beaten to death by his "teachers" (how else do you explain cardiac arrest in an otherwise healthy teenager?) simply because he wants to keep playing basketball? In what universe does it make sense to spend thousands of dollars to install padded cells in classrooms in order to confine 11-year-old girls? How in the hell can it be okay to stuff an autistic middle schooler in a bag?

I think the report does a good job of raising these questions. I want you to watch it and pass it on.

To me the core of the problem is this: there are still people in this world, perhaps a lot of them, who believe it's not just acceptable, but proper, for one person to control another, defending themselves with the most dangerous phrase in the English language, ". . . for their own good." Take the example of the boy who refused to stop playing basketball when his "bosses" commanded him to. We already know he's a special needs kid. He's not hurting anyone. He's not hurting himself. He's shooting baskets for god's sake. When that escalates into a beating death, it is not the fault of the child. It is the fault of the people who believe that they have a right to force him to do their bidding. It's the fault of people who are using the cover of something criminally labelled "therapeutic" to brutally punish a child for refusing to obey. Maybe, maybe, someone in this process tried to actually speak with the boy, to ask him, for instance, "What's wrong?" or to seek some sort of agreement with him like, "How about another 10 minutes, then we go?" Maybe, but what I saw in that video escalated so rapidly that if someone did make efforts to treat the boy like a human being, they didn't give it much of a chance.

And even if they had done everything in their power to persuade or cajole or reason, using and failing in the use of all the most progressive interpersonal techniques, and even if he still defiantly refused to leave the basketball court, who do they think they are to respond by slamming a kid against a wall and wrestling him to the ground? What rationale can they possibly have for that? The only one I can think of is, "We have to maintain control." Really? He's playing basketball and you can't have that in a gym at a school? Please.

But what will the other kids think if they see him "getting away" with it? Maybe they'll think he's a kid with special needs and part of that is a little more basketball. Maybe they'll feel like they should get to play a little more basketball too. It's basketball! Let's all play for another 10 minutes. It's a hell of a lot better than beating a kid to death.

Maybe instead of viewing adults as their jailers, they'll instead see that the adults in their lives are there to listen to them, to ask questions, to work out agreements with them, and, you know, treat them like human beings. Instead, what these special needs teenagers learn is that if they do stand up for themselves, a gang of bigger, stronger people will force them to do their bidding; that they, like this poor dead boy, are no better than prisoners subject to the control of others.

Or how about shoving an 11-year-old girl into a windowless, sound-proof padded cell? Prisoners report that the worst punishment they can receive is solitary confinement. It literally drives people insane. Torturers throughout history have relied on techniques like these to "break" their victims. Or what about putting a boy into a bag? Oh, but this is therapeutic; it's a place to safely vent. BS. Did you listen to what those kids had to say about their experiences? Did it sound like they felt safe? Of course not. They felt afraid and anyone with even an ounce of empathy can understand that. Every one of them agreed that it made them feel angrier, not calmer. Does anyone really think that isolating or binding an emotional child, especially an emotionally out-of-control 6th grader, is therapeutic? Again, it's clearly not about helping kids, but rather about control, punishment, and "teaching them who's boss."

But what about the other kids, what do they learn if these kids "get away" with their behavior? Really? This is what we want to teach? This is what will happen to you, should you make the mistake of having an emotional meltdown: we'll terrorize and humiliate you by locking you in a padded cell where no one can hear you scream, or perhaps we'll just crudely shove you into a bag. Is this what we want to teach children? I was unable to find information on how much one of those "scream rooms" cost, but I'm guessing it's tens of thousands of dollars. How about, instead, we spend that money on real therapy?

I don't have all the answers, of course, but I do know that this is wrong. First, let's stop torturing children. Let's stop teaching children that they are to be controlled by bigger, stronger people. Then we can talk.

Please pass this video on. People need to know this is happening, legally. It must be stopped.

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Anonymous said...

Sadly, this is happening. I went into special education because I loved interacting with diverse groups of children. My career led me to one of the top school districts in Illinois.

Once there, I found myself constantly at odds with administration and my colleagues because I refused to use control tactics like restraining children, a time out room, etc.

I spent 3 agonizing years there, before I was fired.

I still think about my former students and wonder what happened to them. I also wonder if I took a strong enough stand that, perhaps, I made some changes in the way my colleagues viewed children. I imagine that job will haunt me forever. I can't even think about the impact these types of environments have on children.

Maithili said...

Tom, I am speechless and appalled by the clear lack of conscience of the administrators. Your words are powerful and drive to the source. There are many ways to win -by love and not by war. Especially with children with special needs, in their feat of anger, there is a need to keep them safe and let them experience love more than anger. I think its important to isolate a screaming child to another room full of windows overlooking tress and nature; not in a prison cell. The more we take these kids away from nature, the more time they need to calm themselves down :( Let them run wild on a park area- they will get calmer much sooner! Why the need of laser tags.. even the other people surrounding that child were scared! That's sheer cruelty. Show me some documentation that suggests how this treatment plan works and its benefits to the child, not just to the administrators.

trying to do what's right said...

Teacher Tom, I love your insight and I feel awful about the way grown ups feel they can treat children. At the same time, I feel for the "barbarians" who I believe probably want the best for those children and don't know of any better way. In the fairly recent past, we had a child who had a violent temper and actually sent a teacher to the ER to get stitches after throwing a toy at her. It wasn't safe to leave him alone to throw a tantrum and potentially hurt other children and staff or himself.By the time he left, he was slowly getting better but teachers and children were still afraid of him and he would still have very violent outbursts. We wished we had a safe place for him to unleash his feelings. The tantrum the 9 year old threw in the video was "controlled" in comparison. I still have no idea how we could have better helped him though I wasn't his main teacher and only saw him in passing on the playground. Even though the child eventually moved on to Kindergarten and is no longer with us, I still think about him and wonder how he's doing and what we could have done differently. If you have any suggestions/further reading, I would love to learn more. (To be clear, we never hurt him but we did at times hold him to keep him from hurting others/himself, I could see from the children interviewed that they didn't think it was helpful but we couldn't find any other way to keep people safe).

Anonymous said...

I worked for a year and half in a center for special needs kids. Their needs were mostly emotional and behavioral, and we used physical restraint (not mechanical, but using our adult bodies to pin a child to the floor) and quiet rooms (though never unattended, and the kids could see us through the window or by keeping the door open a crack).

It was no way to treat human beings. And. yet. A child smeared her feces on my face once. I got punched, hit, kicked, and thrown down a flight of stairs - by children (the resulting injuries left me unable to do the job - the restraints - properly.) When I hear you talk about "I won't let you do this," when you talk about holding a child in a bear hug so she won't run in the street or hit somebody else, I think we were attempting something similar.

I was writing about it a lot back in 2010, and I suppose some of it is relevant now. It's here, if you're interested:

(note: the comparison of Gaza citizens to traumatized kids is a totally patronizing one that I was wrong about. I'm not editing the article, just point out that I know that now.)

Teacher Tom said...

We use the bear hug technique as well, Anonymous. It's not done punitively, but as a way to use physical closeness as a way to protect and calm a child. I agree with you that this is entirely different than the mechanical, isolating, and punitive methods in this piece.

I know that children can sometimes endanger themselves and others. Our first job must be to protect everyone.

Again, I'm not an expert on this, but I do know, as a human being, that these kinds of methods are inhuman and ineffective. As the ABC News piece points out, lack of training is a major problem.

Anonymous said...

As a middle-aged education consultant I'm appalled, I'm angry at such barbaric treatment at the hands of people who purport to contribute to the wellbeing and education of children.

Scratch the surface of their histories (I cannot refer to them as teachers) and you will find opportunistic sadistic bullies.

Thank god we don't have such laws in Australia. When a student needs timeout in our Special Needs school, they do so in the dimmed sensory room on bean bags with a teacher. Whether Special Needs, mainstream or private, nobody is allowed to place hands on a student - at all!

Where's the training whereby teachers learn about the brain - what an amygdala hijack is and how to respond to it. Put me in a bag, give me an electric shock, forcibly restrain me and an amygdala hijack must and will follow.

One thing we don't get about America is the gun issue and the stret protests to maintain the right to own a gun. Where are the protests of people marching in the street to protect not only the rights but the wellbeing of America's most vulnerable citizens.

Floor Pie said...

Yep, this kind of thing happens all the time. (Not the dying part, fortunately, but the seclusions and restraints, and the attitude toward special education students who aren’t cute-and-cuddly poster children.) Things are changing, but they’re changing extremely, extremely slowly.

I have to say, though, it's almost too easy to get angry at the teachers who did this when most of us parents are unwittingly part of the system that supports it. Special ed parents have known about situations like this one for years. We’ve been squawking about it forever. But no one’s going to listen to us until we have a significant number of allies in the “typical” parent community.

It takes a *lot* of strength and empathy to build a supportive school culture for these students. Do you have what it takes to be part of the solution? Not just when it’s some random student in the newspaper after he’s already been killed and it’s already too late, but the elementary school version of that student who just pushed your own child face first off the play structure.

What would you do if your child had a classmate with special needs who, when stressed out, would engage in extreme behaviors like kicking, hitting, spitting, biting, or cursing? Would you pull your child out of the class? Would you put pressure on the principal to get that student out of your child's classroom or out of your school entirely? Would you make assumptions about the student's parents or background? Would you call the student a “bully”? Would you tell your child to stay away from them? Would you flee to private school or homeschooling?

Do you know why they have those “quiet rooms” in the first place? Why “self contained” classrooms even still exist? Many reasons, of course, but here’s one we actually have some control over: Enough parents of typically developing students don’t believe their children are safe around students with special needs. Enough parents have complained to principals and even threatened to sue over it, and it drives a culture of segregation. It drives a stigmatizing culture of “less than.” And it’s that very culture of “less than” that subconsciously empowers a teacher to use force on a student in the first place. “Keep the other students safe.” That’s it.

There are a lot of simple things you can do to support a culture of empathic special education inclusion at your school. I keep thinking I ought to write a post on it. One of these days I will. In the meantime, I kind of touch on it in this post:

Anonymous said...

Devestating! I passed it on. I taught children with autism for 10 years. I never used punishment of ANY KIND with them - not even time out - and I had an extremely successful classroom where my students - even those who were non-verbal and extremely "involved" - trusted me.

Teacher Jessica said...

To the PP, often the same people who are fighting to protect their guns are the same people who are fighting to protect their money from being taxed to help America's most vulnerable citizens.

Floor Pie said...

I also want to add that, as a special education assistant who works almost exclusively with students with very challenging behaviors, my money is squarely where my mouth is. I know how tough it can be. I also know that it's possible -- exhausting, but possible -- to achieve positive results without resorting to extreme uses of force.

SoundMom said...

We have bounced around regarding home schooling and moving to another country when our kids go to school BEFORE this story but after, I AM TERRIFIED to send my children to any school (preschool to high school) in the USA. How is this ok? How is this not a crime? Why are those so high up in our faulty education system so clueless? Oh...what to do... Hope you have a space for a boy in your class in a year.

Floor Pie said...

Don't be terrified. But DO be vigilant. DO speak up if you see something that seems fishy, even if it's not your own child. DO talk to your own child to foster acceptance and empathy for their classmates with behavior challenges.

And, most importantly, DO have faith. Because there's never going to be a network news story on the many, many skillful and dedicated special education professionals who show up every day and give our hearts and souls to the job. But we are here. Have faith that we are here and we matter, too.

Yes, sometimes we have different ideas and philosophies about how best to serve our students. But more of us than not are empathic and working so hard to contemplate the puzzles, to find a path through to each student.

Yes, more often than not we live "in the cracks," making the best of a bad situation. But many of us are smart and resourceful and will strive to find ways to make school work for our students.

Have faith that sometimes a teacher might have a different approach than yours...and that different approach could WORK. Let them try. I can't tell you how many times this happened when Teacher Tom was my daughter's teacher. I can't tell you how many times I've seen it happen in public schools.

Please have faith. Please know that there are more "good" teacher than "bad." There are even "good" administrators out there. Really! Don't run away and hide. Be part of the solution.