Monday, August 18, 2014

Again, what is a school to do?

I was prompted to write earlier following news reports of a three year-old's repeated preschool suspensions. I was reminded of a situation where I was forced to expel a young student for his behaviors. He was only five.

When Joe first came to the school, aged four, he was bright, chatty, pleasant, and popular in his class. He had two younger brothers, his mother was a counselor and his father on active duty military. Joe was active, and a little impulsive, but no different from most other boys of his age.

After a few months, his father was posted to Iraq leaving his mother to manage with three boys under five. We soon noticed a change in Joe. He began seeking attention, in ways which were often disruptive. He began hitting other students, drawing over books, furniture, and walls. He began breaking things. We initially felt these were not impulsive, or as principally a matter for teachers, but deliberate and thus something to be documented and also referred to parents.

I emailed both parents through a joint account which had been set up to allow the father to keep involved, asking the mother for a meeting. We had the meeting and I shared with her the various dates, actions, and observations we had begun to record. She either denied them or offered explanations for each, inevitably accusing other children of the offenses or of provoking Joe into what were to her justifiable reactions.

We soon began to hear comments and indirect complaint from parents of other children in Joe's class. The school was unusually inclusive, and yet we began to hear of birthday parties to which Joe was not invited. He was seen increasingly isolated in class and at recess. I took the mother aside at one morning's drop-off and told her of these changes. She reacted by becoming angry at me and at the school for, in essence, unfairness and targeting her son.

One day, a teacher came to see me. Joe had been seeing trying to reach inside the underwear of a girl in his class. The teacher had spoken to Joe, but as we were now documenting his behaviors she submitted a written incident report. A day or two later, he was spoken to for following a girl into the bathroom and closing the door. He was then reported for trying to pull down another girl's underwear.

I called our childcare inspector, a former CPS case-worker, and asked her advice. She instructed me to report these incidents to CPS, reminding me that the law is clear. We, as "mandated reporters", are not permitted under the law to consider, interpret, or reflect. Only CPS has this authority. She suggested I had already broken the law by not reporting the first two incidents. So, I called CPS and made the report.

Almost the next day, Joe was again in my office. He had pulled down his pants in front of a young girl, exposing his genitals, and had made suggestive remarks. I called his mother and asked her to come and collect him. I sent an email to his parents' joint account stating that Joe was suspended until (a) he had had a psychologist's assessment with a set of strategies to be followed by both school and parents, (b) we had had a meeting with the parents to establish a behavioral contract. I reported the matter to CPS, report number two.

Joe's mother came in and was furious, aggressive, and threatening. She shouted at me that I was a pervert and a sexual deviant in my interpretation of Joe's actions, loudly enough to be heard in the classrooms. I finally had to call the police to remove her and to warn her about her behavior on the school´s campus. After speaking to the school's attorney, I again wrote to the parents' joint email account. I advised her that she was banned from the campus, and that her younger son should be dropped off and picked up by other parents.

I then received a complaint from the mother of a seven year-old girl that her daughter had been sexually propositioned by five year-old Joe. I filed another report to CPS, again called our attorney, and emailed Joe's parents' joint account saying I was expelling him for inappropriate sexual behavior, sending an original copy of the letter by registered mail.

A month or so later Joe's father came into my office. He had come back from Iraq to discover that soon after he left, Joe's mother had begun a relationship with a convicted drug-felon who coincidentally was wanted by the police. Joe´s father had been granted immediate and urgent custody over the boys, and wanted to know what had happened at the school. Joe's mother had erased the emails I had been sending, so he had no idea of the steadily escalating situation. Court-hearings, divorce and custody hearings followed.

It emerged that Joe's was really only imitating what he was seeing at home happening between his mother and her new boyfriend. He did not know what he was seeing and then doing were both wrong. I had access only to one parent who not only denied what was happening, but attacked me for reporting it and for enlisting her involvement in addressing it. I knew the other parent was absent in a very dangerous environment. I did not know he was unaware of what was happening.

Above all, I had five accounts of five different students who had been harmed by his behaviors.

The law was clear. I had to report to CPS what Joe was doing.

Another law was also clear. I could not interfere with Joe's privacy rights by discussing his actions with the parents of the five other students, nor could I discuss with them any other incidents. Similarly, I could not discuss the five students with Joe's parents because of those students´ privacy rights. The only option I had, particularly in terms of protecting the other students, was expulsion. The expulsion of a five year-old.

Looking back, I see two good things came from this. Firstly, the expulsion was significant in the divorce and custody hearings, and I suspect led to special consideration from the judge of Joe's needs in particular. Secondly, the law says public schools do not have to accept a student who was expelled from a non-public school. Joe´s new principal was able to require counseling and psychological support which would otherwise, almost certainly, not have happened.

I saw the father recently. The boys are doing well, Joe is showing no evidence of effects, although he sees the psychologist weekly The mother is also seeing a counselor and is now being premitted by the court to see the boys. All seems to have ended well, because of a father who cared. I can only wonder about all those other children who do not have such a parent, and ask myself: what is a school to do?

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