It means that you’ve gotten it all wrong

Today’s guest author is Claudia Rodgers McCulloch, PhD. Dr. Claudia is a licensed psychologist, a licensed educational psychologist and licensed school psychologist. Dr. Claudia was in private practice conducting evaluations in Los Angeles for 25 years. Her website is, DrClaudia.net, and there is a tremendous amount of information on the website to support parents.

Claudia Rodgers McCulloch, Ph.D.

There he stood, right there in my office.

Andy stood stone cold still and looked around; then he started to ask me questions.  “Miss Claudia, what’s this?”  “What’s this?  What’s this used for?  Can you show me this book?  Look how far we can see!”, he exclaimed as he stood looking out over the Port of Los Angeles with its huge cargo cranes and enormous ships stacked tall with “cans” of products bound for other countries.

For the first time since meeting him, Andy’s speech wasn’t pressured; he wasn’t rigid and intense.  His language was clear and focused.  He wasn’t carrying his shoulders up under his ears.  We spent that first session chatting and easing our way into this new setting.

Why was this ordinary event of coming to my office so momentous?  

Because Andy wouldn’t leave his home.  He wouldn’t go anywhere for fear that he’d end up at school.  He barely was able to tolerate me coming to visit him.  It took months of going to his home, working a little bit each time and socializing for hours to get Andy to trust me.  

Most of what Andy talked about when I went to his home was how much he didn’t like his home hospital teacher.  “She’s from the school.  She’s “mean and she doesn’t help me”.  Of course, he couldn’t explain the reasons for his feelings.  

It was clear, this was about instinct and emotion.  Something about her set him off and that “something” was buried deep inside him and was locked in a vague memory of fear.  He couldn’t bring that memory out to the light of day to confront it.

Andy threw violent, out-of-control tantrums when school was even discussed.  The word “school” could not be spoken in his home.  He wanted me to be his teacher.  

Long after Andy started bonding with me, I felt it might be time for him to come to my office.  I took pictures and shared them with him during my final visits to his home in order to prepare him for what he would see.  He was intrigued.

In preparation for his first visit, we had a countdown chart and I called him every evening and told him how much I was looking forward to him coming to my office.  Parents agreed that if he couldn’t make the drive to my office, we’d try again and again…no harm, no foul, no telling him it was going “to be fine”.  No disappointment.

Getting him to my office was going to be a cage fight.  I was impressed, very impressed that even though I was in his home, his “safe space”, he struggled against deep wounds.  When I was there, he was vigilant, pressured, intense.  I questioned if, despite his intention, he could actually make it to my office.

What, in God’s name, happened to this child?  

Neither mom nor dad could identify anything that could be so powerful to trigger this kind of reaction except to say that “It started this year when he went back to school to 4th grade.   He lasted one day”.  Nope, no bullies.  In fact, “Andy misses his friends”.

Oh sure, I observed the symptoms of the previous diagnoses: mild cerebral palsy, uncontrollable Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, language processing disorders, sensory issues, learning problems across the board, all of it.  Yes, these issues were the result of the complete medical mismanagement of his birth, but they didn’t account for his extreme response to the first day of school.  Those birth-related issues were only part of the story.

After months of interaction and preparation and a successful first meeting, Andy showed up for every appointment, smile on his face, twinkle in his eye and he couldn’t wait to start talking with me about everything that happened since I had seen him last.  He ran from the elevator to my door, all the way down the hall, calling my name.  

What makes this powerfully built, tall, 9-year old boy, become a tornado of rage and fear at the thought of school?

I found out.  I found out by accident.  

A box holding a large item had been delivered to my office shortly before he arrived one day.  I had cut the box into large pieces and didn’t have time to cut them into smaller pieces before he showed up.  We played with the pieces in the hallway, building “stuff” during our breaks. 

One time, Andy laid down on one especially large piece and wanted me to pull him down the hall as fast as I could.  Mine was the only occupied office on that floor, so there was no one around to tell us we couldn’t!

Andy had to earn playtime.  He was required to work for three 5-minute periods to earn the trip down the hall.  It was a blast.  His mom took great delight in watching him have fun.

But….everything comes with a price.  

Andy was able to manage his attention span and work for “hallway sledding” privilege.  It was a great carrot!  However, one day he arrived and wasn’t his usual self, but he was still able to earn hallway sledding time.

We were flying down the hall, laughing, when Andy began to cry and scream, “Stop it, stop it, you’re hurting me!”  Mom and I looked perplexed at each other.  I signaled not to go to him or comfort him because of the intensity of his emotional state.  We waited for him to bring himself around which took about 15 minutes. 

Andy stood up and went into the office.  We did not speak to him.  There was a purpose to this moment, and I didn’t want the flow to be interrupted.

Andy sat down on the sofa, face in hands, rocking back and forth, sobbing and wailing.  I signaled to mom not to talk or touch him.  He seemed to be on the verge of “something”.

Andy finally looked up and said, “She hurt me.  Ms. Jones hurt me.  I don’t want her to be my teacher, she hurt me”.  

I didn’t probe. By this point, mom was standing behind him.  When he wasn’t looking at me, I shook my head in an attempt to communicate to her to be invisible.  I sat in the chair across from him, but close.  I waited. 

Comforting him at this point was not in his best interest.  He needed to have this time for a grief response, for a response of anger and confusion.  He needed to “let it rip”.

In between uncontrollable sobs and retching into the trash can, Andy shared how, 3 years before, Ms. Jones, an assistant in his kindergarten class, became angry, pushed him down and dragged him across a floor mat.  She scared him and he was physically hurt.  Ms. Jones threatened him to not tell his mother or anyone else. 

I realized that some aspect of the physical sensation of being pulled on the piece of cardboard was similar to the feeling he experienced when Ms. Jones dragged him across the mat.  

Lying on his back and moving across the floor.  There it was.  The trigger.  Out of nowhere, the event was revealed in all of its ugliness.  Abuse.  Threat.  Intimidation.  Terror.  Hopelessness.  Helplessness.  All of the makings of his response to her then were right up in his face now.  Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms hit him hard and fast.

Over the years, the unresolved trauma grew, and eroded Andy’s already-compromised developmental path.  His coping skills fell apart, but he didn’t completely come undone until he encountered her again in 4th grade when she was assigned as his teacher.

Wait a minute…what?  How did Ms. Jones become his teacher?  Then…

I went on the state education website to learn about Ms. Jones’ credentials and her rise from an assistant in a classroom for children with moderate-to-severe disabilities to a classroom teacher for students with the same debilitating conditions.  

“Oh, so here’s the story”, I thought to myself as I peeled back the layers on the event.  Turns out, at the time she was hired as a teaching assistant in a high-needs classroom, Ms. Jones was employed as a food service manager in a large hotel chain while attending a university part-time.  She dropped the food service gig to be employed in the classroom.

Well, being a food service manager is certainly “related” experience to qualify as an assistant in a high-needs classroom, isn’t it?  (Snarky).  Yes, I was as confused as you are now.  

Ms. Jones wasn’t trained.  She wasn’t prepared.  And, clearly, she wasn’t supervised properly.  But, the district needed bodies in the classroom and Ms. Jones was that body.  It’s my guess that attending college in a related field must have been that “related experience” the district was looking for and voila, in the classroom you go, Ms. Jones!

Ms. Jones had no business whatsoever working with children with moderate-to-severe disabilities.  She hurt Andy.  She traumatized him and that trauma was now erupting, fully 3 years later.  Her intimidation of him worked.  He didn’t spill the beans.

After Andy’s abuse was shared with us, I reported it to the sheriff’s child abuse detectives who pursued an investigation.  I was told, and rightly so, that there was likely to be an “unsatisfying outcome” meaning that no charges could be filed.  No evidence, a highly compromised victim…you know the drill.  However, one of the detectives was committed to the fight.  

He went to school and interviewed Ms. Jones repeatedly.  He went to Human Resources at the district offices and generally, both made a “nuisance” of himself and to “put the fear of God into them” just as he promised me.

The teacher quit about 10 minutes before she was fired.  I later learned that she moved to a state outside of the continental US.  I bet she’s teaching.  Let’s hope she learned her lesson.  At least she was away from my client.  I felt guilty.  There was nothing more I could do.

Let’s get back to this topic of PTSD.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just for soldiers, first responders and those who find themselves in harm’s way nearly every day of their lives.  We’re all vulnerable.  Any of us can be the victim of or be in the presence of violence, threat, and fear for our lives or the lives of others.  You don’t have to be hurt.  You need to be in the presence of terror.  And that terror, well, it goes underground until it erupts.  It never, ever goes away.  That is the real problem.  

The feelings don’t get processed.  They linger about, roiling in their anxiety and grief and they never get dragged out of their hole to be confronted, until you’re suddenly playing and having fun and the light goes out of your life.

Cancer patients, crime victims, those who’ve suffered injuries and accidents are vulnerable to developing PTSD.  I’ve given the diagnosis to about 20 children out of the more than 1200 I evaluated in the course of 25 years in private practice evaluating children, teens and young adults. 

Why that diagnosis?  They were traumatized from the abuse by the adults they were told to trust.  Their sense of safety was violated, and they could no longer protect themselves.  They had no choice or voice.  They were held emotionally hostage, and no one knew.  They couldn’t make sense of the world.  Their security was gone.

These children were physically hurt, restrained by multiple adults, locked in closets or secluded in a room alone, left to manage intense and terrifying feelings on their own.  They couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back, tell their story or get resolution. They lost control over their lives.

It’s abuse, pure and simple.  But, it’s a special kind of abuse because the abusers have permission, they are respected and unquestioned members of society, are charged with acting in the best interest of our children and we willingly put our children in their hands.  

What must our children think of us when we deliver them to those who hurt them? What happens to the fabric of our relationship with them?  We adults cannot know.  We can’t even begin to imagine.  We can only know if we’re that child and those children usually can’t tell us.  Why?  Because they can’t trust us anymore.  Maybe forever.

Seclusion and restraint.  It’s sanctioned by state governments.  It’s permissible.  Oh sure, there are lots of forms to be filled out after such an event and school staff meet and nod in agreement after a review that the actions were required.  It doesn’t ever seem to be about the child.  It seems to be about minimizing their responsibility for getting it all wrong.

I started teaching in public schools in Florida when there were laws on the books that forbade the state government from even introducing legislation that outlawed corporal punishment.  Yep, we just kept beating kids until they learn.  

If parents had hit their children with a paddle, they’d be doing jail time.  But, a principal could do it and it was sanctioned, permissible and even encouraged. 

I was given a paddle on the first day I taught and was told, “They have to be beaten in order to learn”.  Wait, what?  

Needless to say, it was a rough year for that principal and me, especially when he barged into my classroom and try to mete our judgment on the backside of a malnourished 8-year old boy.  The principal and I got into a shoving match as I tried to get him out of my room.  Ugly, ugly stuff.  If he thought he was going to use that paddle on me, he was in for a fight.

It’s really about “What can we get away with?” because we really don’t know how to handle this child and our only option is to overwhelm them.  We can’t ever appear to be in the wrong.  We can’t ever risk appearing to be incompetent and resorting to physical and emotional violence.

In reality, it really does mean that you’ve gotten it all wrong.  The true nature of this child’s difficulties has not been identified by your “eligibility” assessment.  No one’s thought to offer to pay for a private assessment to learn what’s really going on and what, exactly, the child really needs. No one’s ever considered calling on professionals outside the district’s control.  You know why that is, right?  

The child surely doesn’t need more fear, confusion and anxiety in his life, yet that’s what he’s getting.  It’s not his fault, but the system, full of “professional adults” is making it his responsibility.

Over the 25 years of private practice, I’ve given diagnoses of PTSD (a very debilitating anxiety disorder) to a middle schooler when the principal lost his temper and locked him in a janitor’s closet.  

[Resolution:  The student went on to commit felonies and is now in prison.  There were no consequences for the principal.  I learned, at that point, not to rely on the system to deal with incompetent personnel who abused children.  I took the mandated steps to bring their incompetence to the attention of “higher authorities”.]

And, there was the child who had such panic attacks related to severe sensory issues that he could only flail when he became dysregulated and, on one occasion, was put into seclusion for so many hours that the staff forgot to check on him and he soiled himself.  This child had been repeatedly restrained and secluded.  After each incident, his behavior escalated mightily.

[Resolution:  Similarly to Andy’s journey described above, it took a great deal of time to uncover the abuse of those who wrestled him to the ground, punched him and then, without the benefit of a medical assessment, locked him in a room until he urinated and defecated on himself due to having no access to toileting facilities.  He was placed, at my recommendation, in a non-public school for students with severe sensory issues and language processing disorders and the perpetrators were fired.  To my knowledge, no assault charges were brought against them.  My fear is that they went on to work with children in other districts.  How could this happen?  

If the school district provided only a “neutral” statement of when the employee started and ended employment (a tactic used to avoid being sued for making negative comments), when the toxic employee sought a job at another district, their misconduct would go without being revealed to the new employer.  The new employer could cite “plausible deniability” should the toxic employee go on to hurt another child.  The system is rigged against the child.

And, there was the kid to whom I had given a diagnosis of depression and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder with severe executive functioning deficits.  When I sat in the classroom to do an observation as part of my assessment, the teacher taunted him and called him “sad and stupid” when he wasn’t paying attention in order to answer her question.  Yes, she did this with full awareness that I was there to observe him.  Can you imagine her conduct when I wasn’t in the room?

[Resolution:  After witnessing the withering verbal attack by the teacher, I went immediately to the local police department and filed an emotional abuse report against her.  My student was immediately placed in the school of parents’ choice to address his particular needs of dyslexia, extremely slow processing speed related to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and language processing deficits.  The teacher was not fired.  I have no knowledge if any discipline took place.  I include this example of a child feeling that he had to stay there and “take it” without a voice or choice because this is emotional seclusion, restraint and hostage-taking.]

And, then, there was the 7-year-old with autism who was left alone outside on a basketball court in full sun with no water and no hat, sitting on the searing concrete, during a wicked Santa Ana condition (high heat, searing winds) as punishment because he “wasn’t playing basketball nicely with the other kids”.  

[Resolution:  After I heard the story from his parents, I went into the local LAPD and reported the conduct to the Child Abuse detectives who immediately went to the school.  Charges were filed against the principal.  My client went to a non-public school designed specifically for those on the spectrum.  The tuition for that school, as well as for supplementary services, including treatment for PTSD, was funded completely by the Los Angeles Unified School District without challenge.]

 There is absolutely no reason for students to be secluded or restrained more than once.

It is understood that a single incident of being restrained or secluded may herald the risk of it happening again and again.  

Once is enough.  

“More than once” suggests that the student is struggling at a level where they may represent a danger to themselves or others because serious, identifiable issues have been overlooked for an extended period of time.  Because of the failure to identify the underlying causes of the student’s behavior, the opportunity to address those issues and create humane interventions has been lost.  

Once a student is “on a trajectory” of escalating outbursts, it’s time for the district to fund a comprehensive assessment with a knowledgeable professional to learn of underlying causes and recommendations to minimize the behaviors and improve the child’s overall functioning. 

 I offer these few, real-life situations and how they were resolved, in part, to make it clear that these are not rare instances and that taking appropriate and reasoned measures to address wrongdoing is critical.  It’s not about retaliation.  It’s about acting in the best interest of the child and indeed, the staff and other students.  School should be a safe place for all human beings.  

We should never settle for restraint or seclusion as a response to behavioral outbursts.  It is the responsibility of the school to intervene quickly and intensively to avoid this kind of intervention from occurring again.

Be bold.  Be confident.  Be decisive.  Be willing to take a stand.  Otherwise, the abuse to children will, not may, have life-altering effects.

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