Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Child Abuse Cannot Be Tolerated in Public Schools

 

At a school in Illinois, employees locked children in what they called “the office.”

Last year, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services opened investigations into 21 allegations of child abuse at Gages Lake School, which enrolls children with behavioral and emotional special needs. Its subsequent report, based on a review of video recordings as well as interviews, describes employee conduct that included “grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground.”

One teacher told the agency, “None of the children at the school are safe.”

Reports such as this make it impossible to dismiss other incidents, such as the six-year-old who police put in handcuffs at a Florida school last fall or the Kansas City elementary student who was arrested for making a gun symbol with her fingers as oddities. Considering these events, along with the tragic school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, TX, in 2018, parents, educators, and policymakers must continue to evaluate appropriate measures of school discipline and student safety.

Still, some cases—such as Illinois’ Gages Lake, and others—are easier to condemn.

Take Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, released last summer. But for these examples from Illinois, Florida, and Missouri, the book could be seen as a story of a bygone era. Based on reports from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a former juvenile detention center and orphanage located 60 miles west of Tallahassee, Nickel tells of the brutal—murderous, even—life for boys at the fictional Nickel Academy. Some were sentenced to learn the error of their ways, but instead were bent “all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.”

And that’s if they survived. Dozier/Nickel closed in 2011, but one year later, archeologists from the University of South Florida began finding the bodies.

NPR reports that nearly 100 boys died while in custody there, most in the 1950s and 1960s. According to former inmates, many of these deaths were homicides. Guards buried some of the remains in unmarked graves on the property.

The novel unfolds during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but Whitehead’s account is more than a saga of racial injustice. Nickel is a meditation on the existence of pain and the search for meaning in life when some people suffer more than others.

Turner is one of Whitehead’s main characters, and as he reflects on his time at Nickel, the author writes, “The way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer [Nickel’s administrator]…and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.”

We can naturally wrestle with these ideas alongside Whitehead’s characters because, as George Will wrote in his review of Nickel Boys, “Whitehead never raises his authorial voice,” which “enhances its wallop.”

Whitehead’s characters wrestle with the “capacity to suffer,” looking for “the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.” Ultimately, most of the boys in the book, and presumably in reality, did the only thing they could do under the circumstances: “They endured.”

NPR reported that in 2008, then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist “ordered state investigators to look into the allegations of abuse, torture and deaths at the school,” but officers said they “couldn’t find enough evidence.”

Nickel’s story is clearly one of abuse, and the arrest described above of a six-year-old is certainly troubling. We should watch for more examples of the latter. In our current school discipline policy climate, schools must find their way along the spectrum between restorative justice ideas and zero-tolerance policies. The former leave open the potential for dangerous students to remain in the classroom, while the latter put small children in handcuffs.

Educators should find their way using rigorous research and careful judgment. Meanwhile, grace and mercy give meaning to the “problem of pain,” as C.S. Lewis wrote. “Pain” he observed, “provides an opportunity for heroism.” No one should have to accept injustice, but it is nothing short of heroic to endure it without hatred.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy.

Published in Education
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  1. I Walton Member

    We’ve put unionized centralized bureaucrats in charge and most private schools follow educational trends. Teachers and parents can run schools independently, autonomously like New Zealand did and went, almost overnight, from the bottom of the Western developed world to the top. The trick was to let parents decide which, of all the schools they’d send their kids to, so lousy teachers hurt their chances and were were removed. Content and materials change faster than bureaucratized overly controlled schools can adapt, assuming at least some choose to. Parents and good teachers are better judges of what should be taught and how, and if they’re wrong the school will lose students to schools where parents and teachers make better choices. Competition works better than all alternatives, why we’ve socialized our schools is beyond me.

    • #1
    • March 17, 2020, at 1:42 PM PDT
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  2. Illiniguy Member
    Illiniguy Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    @jonathanbutcher: I’d urge you to confine yourself to the actual circumstances of cases like Gages Lake and not weave them into the tapestry of a novel, because to do so diminishes the real issues that are at play here. Seclusion rooms and physical restraints are real problems that have to be dealt with in the real world of children who cannot control their own behavior. This is not to blame the children, in most if not all cases they are unable to control themselves. But the bigger question is how do we deal with a situation that is getting ever more out of control?

    Here in Illinois, especially, we are dealing with a child welfare system that is coming apart at the seams. Children are placed in mental hospitals and left there because there’s no place else for them to go. We have families that drop their kids off and simply walk away. The people who work at these facilities often do so at the risk of their own lives.

    Right now we are working on drafting rules to interpret legislation passed in the past session that defines the limits of restraint and seclusion, but there are two sides to that story. How do you protect those who work with these kids when they lash out; how do we protect those kids from themselves? These are not questions that lend themselves to easy answers, and unlike most novels, there’s no tidy wrap-up on page 224. This is a book with no end.

    • #2
    • March 17, 2020, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  3. Eugene Kriegsmann Member

    Let me say first that you are talking about a novel. Characters can be drawn in a novel to suit the outlook of the author and his goal in writing his book. I spent more than 40 years teaching students who ranged in age from 12 to 21 who were classified initially as emotionally disturbed but later changed to Behaviorally/Emotionally Disabled. When I started my teaching career in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1967 I came to a school building that was built in the late 1880s. The floor was warped in several places to a height of 4 to 5 inches. Initials were carved into the desktops deep enough to reach the floor. My first two weeks of teaching were spent with 150 fifth graders split between two adjacent rooms. The union was on strike, and only a few of us crossed the picket line. I had taken classes the preceding summer paid for by the district, and I felt obligated to honor my agreement to work, even though my starting salary at the time was $4800/annum. I crossed the picket line every day. I did everything I could to maintain order in a building that had a population that was totally black and desperately poor. Several mothers came to school daily and helped me during those ten days. I had no prior experience in a public school, I had never taught, and I had only the briefest of training provided at NYU during that summer. My actual degree was in Marine Biology. Somehow, I made it through. I was young enough that I actually enjoyed it. 

    When the school reopened following the strike and the rest of the staff showed up I was given the 3-13 class. The third grade was split up into 13 groups based on reading level. The 3-1 class read at or slightly above grade level, so you can do the math and figure out where the 3-13 class was. I read the folders on the kids I was being assigned. I fully expected them to be fanged and total feral. They were in actuality beautiful kids, sweet, cute, a bit uncivilized, certainly damaged, but more than anything wanting to be loved and made to feel safe. I was fortunate in having attended private schools in which discipline was strictly enforced, but never with physical abuse. I set rules, established mild and consistent consequences for very minor offenses, and never had to deal with anything very serious. Mid year, after their third teacher that year had been carried out of the building on a gurney the principal asked me to take the 5-13 class. I agreed reluctantly because I had come to love my little guys a great deal. I used the same techniques with the older group and had the same level of success. 

    I need to continue this in another box.

    • #3
    • March 17, 2020, at 2:07 PM PDT
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  4. Eugene Kriegsmann Member

    I told my fellow first year teachers that I saw the classroom as essentially a wolf pack in which there was only room for one alpha, me.

    When I left New York at the end of my second year and moved to Seattle I was hired by the then head of Special Education, a legendary figure who was the originator of classes for emotionally disturbed kids within the public schools. He hired me to teach in a junior high school where I would be working with another teacher who had been there for a year and was very successful. From this teacher I learned the basics of Behavior Modification. It is a terrific technique which has an emphasis on rewarding positive, targeted behavior while largely ignoring negative behavior. In those early years we had a psychiatrist who would visit with us about once a month. He was supposed to help us figure out what was happening with our kids, but more often he helped us deal with our own feelings. When you spend 6 hours a day with damaged children without another sane adult to reflect off of it can be draining.

    I was very successful largely, I believe, because I combined the two techniques, behavior mod and my own wolf pack philosophy. I never, in all my years ever manhandled a child. I never used corporal punishment nor did I allow my students to be subjected to it by the administrators. The goal was always to make the classroom a safe space for the children, in many cases the only safe space in their lives. I took very few sickleave days because I never trusted anyone else to take my class. When I did have to leave the room for some reason I could see the look of fear on the children’s faces because they relied on me to keep them safe.

    I was appalled by seeing teachers who were unable to take on the role of alpha in their classroom and ended up using inappropriate techniques to control their classes, if control was even possible. Cruelty was rare in my experience, but it did happen, people can be very petty, and they become more so when they are challenged and lack the fortitude to remain firm. Children will always challenge because unless you are firm they don’t feel safe. Cruelty has long been the technique used by tyrants, as Napoleon said, put gold braid on the fool and you create a tyrant. Far too often in schools, onboard ships, and in the military, tyrants have been in charge, not natural leaders. I suspect what was described in the novel was far more common than opposite, particularly when dealing with minority children or kids who fought the system. After my own son was born I felt an even greater obligation to insure that safety of the kids in my charge. I understood how a parent must feel sending their child into the care of another adult.

    • #4
    • March 17, 2020, at 2:33 PM PDT
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  5. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    I watched the linked video. The child was misbehaving badly, and the action of the aide looked quite appropriate to me. The kid in the video was not having a tantrum — he was trying to get out of the space, presumably despite being told to stay there (though I can’t tell about this because there is no audio.)

    Have you ever had to deal with an actual child having a tantrum? You do have to physically restrain them.

    We’re talking about a school for children “with behavioral and emotional disabilities,” according to the linked article. I take that to be typical mealy-mouthed euphemism, and what they mean is little monsters with significant behavioral disorders.

    We had one such kid in a homeschool boy’s club that my wife ran, about 15 years ago. He was a nightmare. He would steal things, mess with the thermostat, and sometimes get violent. He would refuse to follow instructions.

    I have no idea about what goes on in the school cited. The “isolation room” seems a perfectly reasonable time-out type of space to me, and the linked video seemed perfectly appropriate and not at all abusive.

    The problem seems more likely to be a hysterical soccer mom, outraged that anyone would lay their hands on her little darling, no matter what the kid was doing.

    • #5
    • March 17, 2020, at 5:03 PM PDT
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  6. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    I believe there are best practices that will nevertheless fail when used on monsters. 

    There are humans who are monsters and they often start young. There is also hope and redemption and all that jazz, but there are people who will never be reached and we must prevent them from hurting themselves and others regardless of sentiment. 

    • #6
    • March 17, 2020, at 10:21 PM PDT
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  7. Eugene Kriegsmann Member

    TBA (View Comment):

    I believe there are best practices that will nevertheless fail when used on monsters.

    There are humans who are monsters and they often start young. There is also hope and redemption and all that jazz, but there are people who will never be reached and we must prevent them from hurting themselves and others regardless of sentiment.

    I have worked with “monsters”, sociopaths and psychopaths in my classroom. To a large extent the kids I worked with when I taught in Seattle’s Juvenile Detention Center were Conduct Disorder cases. These, most psychologists and psychiatrists will agree, do not respond to behavior modification systems in terms of showing any lasting behavioral changes. In his book, Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow describes this personality type and the pretty consistent lack of success in reshaping their thinking. My own experience with these kind of students is that the best you can hope for is that you can keep them from committing criminal acts while they are under your direct supervision, but not expect that this will last once they are on their own. Beating them would have as little long term effect as rewarding their positive behaviors. They are, by nature, highly manipulative and completely without integrity. My first experience with one was back in the early 1970s when the younger brother of a student of mine who had graduated was placed in my class at his parents’ request. The older brother was and remained one of the best kids I ever worked with. The younger was a sociopath. The year I spent working with him was a nightmare. He did everything he could to undermine my authority in the classroom. If I left to go to the bathroom, I never knew what I would find when I returned. Many years later, in 1986, I heard that he had been shot to death in a drug deal gone bad in South Seattle. To say that I was unsurprised would be an understatement. His progression through the criminal underworld was a foregone conclusion.

    • #7
    • March 18, 2020, at 6:22 AM PDT
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  8. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):

    TBA (View Comment):

    I believe there are best practices that will nevertheless fail when used on monsters.

    There are humans who are monsters and they often start young. There is also hope and redemption and all that jazz, but there are people who will never be reached and we must prevent them from hurting themselves and others regardless of sentiment.

    I have worked with “monsters”, sociopaths and psychopaths in my classroom. To a large extent the kids I worked with when I taught in Seattle’s Juvenile Detention Center were Conduct Disorder cases. These, most psychologists and psychiatrists will agree, do not respond to behavior modification systems in terms of showing any lasting behavioral changes. In his book, Inside the Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow describes this personality type and the pretty consistent lack of success in reshaping their thinking. My own experience with these kind of students is that the best you can hope for is that you can keep them from committing criminal acts while they are under your direct supervision, but not expect that this will last once they are on their own. Beating them would have as little long term effect as rewarding their positive behaviors. They are, by nature, highly manipulative and completely without integrity. My first experience with one was back in the early 1970s when the younger brother of a student of mine who had graduated was placed in my class at his parents’ request. The older brother was and remained one of the best kids I ever worked with. The younger was a sociopath. The year I spent working with him was a nightmare. He did everything he could to undermine my authority in the classroom. If I left to go to the bathroom, I never knew what I would find when I returned. Many years later, in 1986, I heard that he had been shot to death in a drug deal gone bad in South Seattle. To say that I was unsurprised would be an understatement. His progression through the criminal underworld was a foregone conclusion.

    Kids that seem to be psychopaths need a chance. But they don’t need every chance. 

    • #8
    • March 18, 2020, at 1:39 PM PDT
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