The following is a true story, when I was working as a TSS (Therapeutic Staff Support) worker in a public school outside Philadelphia in the late 1990's. It was my first work experience, having graduated with my undergraduate degree just a few months earlier.
“He’s the devil – just a bad seed,” said Daniel’s 2nd grade teacher, a seasoned “professional” with over thirty years of classroom experience. “I’d love to see where he’ll wind up ten or twenty years from now. He’ll be locked up by the time he’s 20. The kid will be a lifer.”
And so the self-fulfilling prophecy begins to take shape.
“The Devil.” That’s the nickname with which Daniel was ‘tagged,’ just two years prior – in kindergarten – when his “aggressive” behaviors began to surface. Never mind that Daniel punched and broke his teacher’s nose because he didn’t want to share the classroom Legos. Never mind that he pulled an earring out of his teacher’s ear, resulting in a bloody mess that still stains the circle time rug to this day. Never mind the fact that Daniel stabbed another child in the eye with a freshly sharpened pencil because the child took one of his crayons during a tabletop activity.
Never mind any of it.
It was clear that Daniel had social/emotional issues. There is no disputing that. After all, there was a reason why, in the 1st grade, he was placed in a self-contained classroom for children with behavioral challenges. Despite all of this, the fact remained that Daniel’s teachers gave up on him. They saw him as being ‘hopeless.’ They saw him as a being ‘lost cause,’ a waste of time, effort and energy. At the age of 5, they quit on him, on his education – and on his future.
Having worked in a number of schools over the last fifteen years, I know, from experience, how some teachers talk about their students before school, after school, in the faculty room - and right in front of their faces, giving absolutely zero regard for their feelings. Please know that I am not, by any means, stereotyping the behaviors of teachers. I believe that most educators are good-natured, kind-hearted people who have only the best interest of their students at heart. However, there are others who (for whatever the reason) are not in it for the right reasons, who enjoy the drama of putting down their students and their deficits to anyone who will listen. These are the teachers for whom I have no respect. These are the teachers that have no business working with our kids.
As a TSS (Therapeutic Staff Support) worker, I was assigned to work with Daniel within the school setting in his 2nd grade year. The TSS worker, as defined on Wikipedia.com, “…is trained and educated to provide therapy to people with autism or other emotional support needs. It is a position used within the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The TSS meets a child in a one-on-one situation, with family, in public or at school to provide therapy. In areas like social skills, behavioral rehabilitation, speech, motor skills, and many other areas that people with autism or other emotional support needs.”
Having reviewed Daniel’s I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) and F.B.A. (Functional Behavioral Assessment) prior to working with him, I had a good idea of Daniel’s behavioral and educational needs. I was under the assumption, on the first day of school, that Daniel’s teachers, therapists and I would diligently work together as a team to help him reach his optimal learning potential in a safe and nurturing academic environment. I was under the assumption that we all cared for Daniel, his education, and his well-being. I was under the assumption that we were all there for the same reasons – the right reasons.
Quickly did I realize that I was under a lot of false assumptions.
What I witnessed on that first week of school was shocking and absolutely appalling. As a TSS worker, I would follow Daniel and his class to lunch, to recess, and to “specials” (i.e., physical education, library, art, music, etc.). On this particular day, just the third day of the school year, I followed Daniel’s class to music. “Everyone have a seat,” said the music teacher, another seasoned educator with over thirty years of classroom experience, “and do not touch the instruments that are in front of you." While most of the students followed the directive, it was Daniel who proceeded to pick up the maraca.
Typically, this is where I would step in. When the child fails to follow the directive that’s given by the teacher, the TSS worker steps in to redirect him. However, in this particular case, I was too late. Before I could make the slightest move in Daniel's direction, the music teacher jumped out of his chair, ran over to Daniel, picked him up, and began screaming at him and shaking him in a fit of uncontrollable rage. Shocked in disbelief, I put my hand over my mouth – and froze. Did I just witness a teacher verbally and physically assault a student? Was this a dream or, better yet, a nightmare? But, it wasn’t over. The music teacher then took Daniel under the arm, dragged him across the hall to his classroom, opened the door to the padded room, and literally threw him in as if he were a rag doll.
The padded room, also called the “reflection room” by his teacher, is essentially a jail cell which can only be opened from those on the outside. The room, 8 feet by 12 feet in diameter, is bare, and the white florescent lights above are blinding. The walls on all four sides of the room are padded with large blue mats, and the only window that exists is the small rectangular one that can be found on the door, eye level of someone 5’8 or taller. In other words, a child Daniel's size can not see out.
“Get the *bleep* in there and don’t come out!,” shouted the music teacher in a fit of anger which continued to escalate by the minute. With the door slammed shut behind him, Daniel, obviously shaken by the incident, threw his fists against the padded walls, and with tears streaming down his rosy red cheeks, shouted back, “I didn’t do nothing, let me out, I didn’t do nothing!”
His screams fell on deaf ears. The music teacher, whose class had been unattended for the last five minutes, quickly scurried back to the room, where he resumed his lesson as though nothing had happened.
Daniel’s teacher, who was sitting at her desk, looked up at me, smirked, and calmly asked, “So, what did the little devil do this time?” With my jaw dropped and at a total loss for words, I stood there - stunned. I could not believe what I had just witnessed. It was a total assault, not just verbal but physical. Daniel was cursed at, shoved, pushed, and thrown and locked in a padded room like he was some sort of caged animal. The callous disregard for this poor kid and his feelings was absolutely horrifying, and once the realization of what I had witnessed finally sank in, I reacted the only way I knew how.
Quickly, I spun around, opened the door to the padded room, walked in, knelt down, and did everything I could to console Daniel, who was now lying on the floor, face down, in a puddle of tears. “What are you doing,?” angrily snapped Daniel’s teacher, now standing in the doorway of the padded room. “Get out of there, he needs time to collect himself!” Refusing to respond to this moronic demand, I not only continued to console Daniel but, with my left leg, kicked the door shut behind me. Slowly lifting his head, Daniel looked me straight in the eye, and with a shaky voice whispered, “Am I really the devil?” “No,” I responded, doing everything I could to hold back my tears. “You’re Daniel, and you’re a good kid.”
Minutes later, the teacher returned, this time with the principal by her side. “Craig, may I speak with you for a minute,” calmly asked the principal, as though he had been through something like this before. Anxious to speak with him myself, I took a minute more to console Daniel before taking a step outside the room to speak with the pricipal. Wanting to quickly give my side of the story, I eagerly said, “The music teacher, he snapped! He literally threw…” “No!” shouted the principal, cutting me off mid-sentence. “You didn’t see anything! You didn’t hear anything! You know nothing! He’s a well-respected teacher with over thirty years of classroom experience, and we’re not going throw his career down the toilet over something like this! So, just let it go! It’s over!”
And that was it. The principal, having flexed his administrative muscle, quickly walked out of the room and back to his office. The entire incident was swept under the rug as though it never happened. Refusing to accept this as the end result, I immediately walked out in the hallway and called my superior, the BSC (Behavioral Specialist Consultant), who was also assigned to the case. It was at this time when I gave her a play-by-play analysis of exactly what went down, just twenty minutes prior.
To make a long story short, the BSC - that day - tinformed Daniel’s mother of what took place. The very next day, Daniel’s mother met with the principal, the music teacher, and his classroom teacher, to discuss the incident in detail. The BSC was also in attendance. Though I was not privileged to the contents of this meeting, I can say that - just one week later - Daniel was transferred to a private school, outside his district, where he would have the opportunity to start over – with a clean slate! (I believe it is safe to assume that Daniel’s previous school district paid for his private school education, not just for the remainder of this year, but for the next ten years that followed.)
No longer working as Daniel’s TSS worker (behavioral services and supports were seized the day after the incident), I paid a visit to his new school three months later. What I saw instantly brought a smile to my face and tears of joy to my eyes. Daniel – he was happy. He was relaxed. He was to enthusiastic and eager to learn. His spirit was no longer broken – it was mended. He felt safe. he felt secure. And, best of all, he was treated with respect by his teachers. No longer was he tagged with the nickname, “The Devil.” He was just Daniel, and that’s what everyone called him. I could tell, just by talking to his teachers, that they liked him. They held no bias against him. They were fair. And, because they were fair, Daniel was happy – and thriving. He was given a chance to succeed. The bar was raised for him and he met - and exceeded - the challenge.
Daniel has since graduated from high school and is now in his sophomore year of college. With the events of that horrific incident far behind him, Daniel is studying to become – an elementary school teacher! This just goes to show what a good teacher and a caring and nurturing classroom environment can do for a child – and his future.
I’m proud of you, Daniel. You may have exceeded all expectations, but you never exceeded mine. I always believed in you.
Craig Gibson is the Editor of SensorySpot.com, sister site of the internationally acclaimed AutismSpot.com. He is also a Feature Writer for AutismSpot.com. Craig was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of six, and spent the next twelve years in special education. He has since earned two degrees and has published on the local and national levels. You can reach Craig at email@example.com.