With all of the holiday hullabaloo, it’s been a bit difficult to keep up with the news, but it’s been quietly sitting at the back of my mind. My heart goes out to all of the families who have lost loved ones this past year. Holidays and traditions make it all harder. Especially, when you have lost people suddenly or violently. It makes the world dimmer and holidays usually bring a few tears.
I’ve seen quite a bit on Facebook regarding senseless crimes this past week. Most notably the fatal stabbing of three young men, two of which lost their lives. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, much less one that you already have gifts for under the tree.
I’m also praying for the accused. His life has been rough these 23 years and I hate that his life can’t be turned around at this point. Not that I didn’t try when he was 11. He was in my classroom and I was his 5th grade teacher. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll become a violent criminal.” Michael didn’t have much of a support system at home.
Before you think I’m a pushover and coddled him in 5th grade, think again. Michael had 42 office referrals in that one year. Most of them because of his anger. I cannot diagnose anyone, but that was about 8 years into my teaching career, and I knew there was something wrong with that child. I spoke with his father, who was overwhelmed, frustrated, and probably not well educated himself. He was raising two children and taking care of an aging father in a two bedroom apartment. He explained that he had custody of Michael and his sister because their mother had abandoned them, left them without food or water, in an apartment in Clarksville. Mom had her own mental health issues, and was possibly bipolar. I spent a good deal of my time talking and working with Michael that year. I referred him over and over for counseling. We provided dad with referrals and people to call, but still, here we are. A year of 42 discipline referrals, documented explosive anger, and this child continued in school, no counseling, no medicine, and a lack of support. He continued to Bellevue in 6th grade where he continued to act out and exhibit explosive episodes. My understanding is that he was in numerous fights and eventually referred to alternative school. My information goes cold after that.
Fifth grade isn’t where my relationship with Michael ends. I had moved to an apartment complex across the street from his during the school year. When school let out, he came looking for me at the swimming pool. We chatted for awhile. One on one, he was delightful and could tell a good story. He stopped by several times to check in. At some point there was a knock on my door, he’d figured out my apartment. Now, I wasn’t fearful or threatened, but I also know how the world works, so I never invited him in, but again, he just wanted to talk about life and to see how I was doing. I saw him not too long after that, he’d been getting in trouble at school. He blew it off. It wasn’t too many days that had passed when I heard from another teacher that he’d been an instigator in a fight and was sent to alternative school. I haven’t heard from him since. Several years ago, his name appeared in a news story about a stabbing incident in Bellevue. I prayed for him and everyone involved. It was written up as a domestic dispute, so I never heard anything more.
The teacher I teamed with texted me a link to the story.
Since the news broke, I’ve traveled back to that school year over and over in my mind. Michael is only one student of thousands that pass through our schools with undiagnosed mental health issues. Placed in classes where they are usually behind, with a lot of frustration because no one seems to understand what’s happening in their mind. This is more than childhood trauma or ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), this is mental illness and we place these students in regular classes, in regular schools, with typical students and with teachers who have no special training to deal with the behaviors that come along with it. We expect these students to perform at the same level, and these teachers to deal with these behaviors, all while teaching 20 other children. These behaviors are being seen in elementary classrooms everywhere. Unfortunately, our schools and our teachers do not have the space, the manpower, or the resources to deal with these children. Instead, when one of these kids “explodes,” we clear the classroom. We take away from the other kids because no one will stand up and say that the kid who is exploding needs a different environment for learning. No one wants to admit that sometimes a child with a disability (and mental illness is a disability), should be removed from a regular education classroom and served in a smaller environment. No one wants to hear that their child has a problem and needs a special setting.
We have to stop sacrificing the masses in the name of political correctness or with the idea that the public school can “fix” everything that’s wrong.
Michael isn’t the only student I’ve had with mental illness. I had one several years ago who went back and forth between school and a mental health facility. No transitional classroom, no special training. He was released from the facility and reenrolled in his zoned school the following day. How is this best practices for any child, teacher ,or school?
As a teacher, I was told to document the behavior, make phone calls, fill out endless paperwork for meetings with specialists, use rewards charts, attend meetings, fill out more paperwork, create special spaces, create transition plans, only for none of it to work, and then the year would end and the process would begin again the following year, because we want to give the child a “fresh start.”
There’s a serious problem among our young population. A rise in suicides, violence, and acting out. Our children are crying out for help and we continue to placate to them, much to the detriment of our “regular” students. I think we need a different approach to deal with these behaviors. There’s no easy solution, nor is there only one solution. My belief is that our districts and leaders need to begin addressing these issues, starting with our youngest students. Convene teacher leaders at the elementary level and really listen when they share ideas. Those “specialists” have nothing on a teacher with multiple years of experience managing 20 5-year-olds! That’s when we can truly begin to help our most vulnerable and begin to save our schools.
As for Michael, once the media moved on, I haven’t found any updates. I did read that he was to make an appearance in court this week. It’s tragic and my heart hurts for everyone involved. This shouldn’t have happened. I’ll never stop wondering “What if?” While I don’t believe that any of Michael’s history excuses his actions, it does make me continue asking , “What if our schools were on the forefront of helping solve this crisis, instead of on the butt-end?”
What if we had given this child the services he needed? What if we had done something about the 42 office referrals from one school year? What if the school system and the mental health system began working together? What will we do so that no other family has to go through this?
It’s way past time for a real conversation about mental illness in our classrooms.