Reflections on my childhood: Locked in the principal’s office

Today’s guest author is Jennifer Abbanat. Jennifer is a wife and mom to three kids ages 18, 16, and 13. Jennifer is an advocate and voice for her neurodiverse children. She and her family live in Northern California.

I have never really stopped to reflect on my own traumatic childhood experiences until just recently. I have memories from my childhood that seemed normal to me for many years, but now I’m seeing it all through a new lens. My parents never understood how their extremely quiet, shy, well behaved, anxious, sensory overwhelmed little girl could behave the way I did. Many years later I am beginning to understand.

There have been so many horrifying stories in the media in recent years about students being restrained at school, being secluded in closets or rooms at school. One story that is very close to my heart is of a boy named Max Benson. He is my dear friend’s son who was killed at school from prolonged restraint. He is my motivation to see that laws and policies change in our schools and our communities to protect our kids. Too many kids have suffered or worse have been killed at the hands of the adults who were supposed to protect them. I often wonder what would have happened to me if I was a child “behaving the way I did in second grade” today, in the year 2020, instead of 40 years ago. There seems to be so little compassion and tolerance for kids who are struggling. They are viewed by the adults as if they are in control and being purposeful in their noncompliance or in their behavior. Knowing what I went through, it saddens me that this barbaric treatment continues to happen every day in schools around this country. Since Max’s death, there have been more stories of kids being secluded, restrained and even killed. This has got to stop. Things must change.

I am at a place today that I can now recall my own story of being secluded and restrained and the impact this experience had on my life. Having my own child who is also easily overwhelmed has helped me to better understand my own childhood.

I grew up thinking that I was weird, something was wrong with me, I wasn’t “normal “. Like my son, I was just misunderstood.

I think these experiences helped me have even more compassion and empathy for my son’s behaviors and struggles. If I could have behaved that way all those years ago in response to so many changes, it makes sense that my son could struggle with his own challenging behaviors. He was born with severe chronic medical issues that caused him a lot of pain, especially in his first 3 years of life. This was in addition to his developmental delays, which we first noticed through all his sensory challenges that were pretty extreme before his first birthday. This kept us fighting to get answers for him so we could better support him.

I recently saw a video shared on social media that showed a young boy being dragged down a hallway at school, it really impacted me. My own memory of being dragged from my mom’s van, because I refused to get out. This haunts me to this day. Two adults, one taking my arms and one taking my legs, carrying me like a hog from the front of the school to the principal’s office. I had just started 2nd grade. I had just celebrated my 7th birthday. I fought. I screamed. I wiggled. I spit. I was fighting for my life; that is how I remember it. I was panicked and scared.

I was locked in the principal’s office by myself with an aide standing outside the door telling me to “calm down”.

Sometimes there would be a staff member in the office with me, standing guard at the door so I couldn’t run out. I remember them telling me I would get a red slip if I “didn’t stop”. This was part of a reward/consequence behavior system. Red slips were bad is all I knew. And for a kid who always did as I was told and was a rule follower, that didn’t help. I wasn’t in control of my body. I wasn’t purposely deciding to behave this way. I didn’t understand what was happening. I was terrified; how was I supposed to calm down? For many years after this, I wondered to myself, what happened to me? Why did I behave that way? I didn’t understand any of it. No one did. Until I had my son.

I remember feeling shame and embarrassed; especially as I grew up when people would bring up these incidences and laugh about them. I was the kid who bit, hit, kicked, and spit on the principal and teachers when I started 2nd grade. That was a lot of attention for a kid who would rather melt into the background and disappear.

This all came about after my family moved. I had liked school in kindergarten and first grade, so this didn’t make sense to my parents. I was normally the kid who would hide away when overwhelmed; which was fairly common if you talk to people who knew me. I was the kid that would be described as scared of everything. Scared of loud noises, big trucks, fire trucks, strangers, going somewhere unfamiliar. They just said I was an anxious child. I remember always hiding in my closet to shut out the overwhelming events happening around me. So my reaction, which was fighting and running away was all new. I had never behaved that way before, I was attending a new school. We moved to a new house, a new town, a new everything. There were a lot of new things all at once. Clearly, this was a major stress response that pushed me beyond my capacity to cope with all of this change. So instead of hiding as I usually did, my body fought back. This fight going to school went on for the first two months of that new school year. I think some days, my mom and dad just didn’t want to deal with it so they didn’t even bother to try to send me to school sometimes. But I was still punished and told to stay in my room on those days. I wanted to behave. I just couldn’t help it.

I’m now 47. After having my son who, is diagnosed with autism and has chronic medical issues, is when I started to understand my own childhood experiences. The cycle of seclusion and restraint needs to end. We must develop relationships and express compassion and empathy for those that are struggling. Anything else just causes pain and trauma.

I’ve finally learned that what happened to me wasn’t normal, and it should never happen to any child. However, we know all too well how common seclusion and restraint are used in our schools.

This past year, I started a local parent support group. Parents and families benefit from being able to share their experiences and struggles and feel connected to other parents who understand. Parents are a valuable resource for each other and now that I have older kids and my family is not living in crisis mode on a daily basis, I try to provide helpful information, be a resource guide, and create an opportunity for others to connect. I believe our children can be successful. I’ve seen my son make gains that nobody thought he was capable of. He now experiences joy and expresses happiness.

I believe parents are their kid’s best advocates. Unless and until our kids are shown compassion, patience, and feel connected to those around them, many will continue to struggle and be misunderstood. It is time to end seclusion and restraint.

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