Tag Archives: public school

Breach of trust, breach of privacy

December 3rd, 2017

“I was walking down the aisle of the grocery store,” Greg said, “and in the next aisle I heard my son’s teacher telling someone the details of his abuse.”  I was driving Greg, a dad of three, to a local radio station where we were going to be on a talk show about children’s mental health.  We had only met over the phone and quickly told each other the brief version of our lives:  how many kids we had and what kind of mental health issues we grappled with.  The conversation quickly turned to our war stories, the stories of hardship and crisis, partly to prep for the interview.  That’s when Greg told me about overhearing the teacher.

Greg was a single father of two boys and a girl, all of whom had different diagnoses.  His second son, his middle child, had the most on his plate.  He’d had several psychiatric hospitalizations, rotated through several medications and bounced around among therapists.  Right now, Greg was trying to get his school system to see that the child they had enrolled a couple of years ago was a far different child with more serious needs.  He had debated with himself, then told the school the details of his son’s story, hoping it would create an “aha” moment.  I’m sure it did, but it also led to a privacy breach.

Greg and his wife had divorced when the children were small and they had gone to live with their mom and her new boyfriend.  He saw them irregularly.  Greg moved in and out of the state, had several jobs where he tried out a few things.  Some were successful, some weren’t.  Then one day he got a call saying there had been charges of physical and sexual abuse against his ex-wife’s boyfriend and could the children come live with him?  He immediately agreed, somehow thinking that his children would be the same as when they were preschoolers, just older versions of the children he had lived with every day.

They weren’t.  Each of them had been through a lot and expressed it differently.  His oldest son kept saying everything was fine but had nightmares at night.  His youngest, his daughter, was clingy and didn’t want to let him out of her sight.  His middle child had received the brunt of the abuse and alternated between hurting himself and exploding with pain and anger.  Greg, bless his heart, had to learn three different styles of parenting in very short order.

The day he heard the teacher telling someone the graphic details of his son’s abuse, the child was with him and heard it too.  The boy began sobbing and curling in on himself.  Greg told him to wait with the grocery cart and stalked over to the next aisle where he had a few choice words to say.  He felt a little better but he couldn’t unhear it and neither could his son.  Neither could the person who was told the story.

Parents tell me over and over again that they simply don’t trust school staff with their child’s mental health information or history.  They worry – without knowing Greg or his son – that something similar will happen and they fear it will hurt or infuriate them.  There are exceptions to this – parents report that they trust special education teachers and school nurses to a great degree.  Sometimes there are individual teachers who “get it” or have raised a challenging child of their own.  These are the people who translate the symptoms, like Greg’s son’s meltdowns, into working diagnoses and unmet needs.   But they seem to be a small group.

Things happen to children through no fault of their own, resulting in trauma and difficult behaviors.  Sometimes things happen within children, too, that are beyond their control, such as overwhelming moods or crushing anxiety or ping-ponging thoughts. Until they learn tools and strategies, behavior is often their only way to let others know how they are feeling and what their needs are.   In savvy schools, teachers, guidance counselors and aides can be “first identifiers” and spot the things that should concern us and raise the red flag.  In schools like the one Greg’s son attended, that seldom happens.

Parents worry a lot about privacy.  Information about us is collected by everyone, or so it seems, and your children’s information is gathered without their consent. (Often without a parent’s consent either.)  Some information doesn’t intrude into our lives very much so we shrug it off.  For instance, I really don’t care if my transponder tells EZPass how many times I’ve crossed a toll bridge or driven a certain highway. But other information is much more sensitive and can shape how people see us.  Personal mental health information still carries a powerful amount of stigma.

Some mental health advocates say that we should all tell our tales of mental health and mental illness openly. It is, they argue, the only way we will reduce stigma and raise awareness.  Every time I hear that, I think of Greg.  He thought by telling the school about his son’s trauma that he would create compassion.  He expected that the team working with his son would respect his privacy.  The day he heard the teacher talking in the next aisle and watched his son sobbing, he changed.  He learned to tell just enough but not everything.  He learned that sometimes the risk of sharing his story can be too great.  He learned that while our stories can create powerful change, emotional safety matters too.

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What’s the elephant in the room?

September 11th, 2016

elephant2I remember being a child and planning what my life would be like. I was a natural caretaker and it was comforting for me to take care of people. From a early age I spent time with my grandparents and first they took care of me while later I took care of them.  It was a family dynamic built on love and kindness. As I grew up I supported my siblings in many ways – sometimes more than they liked. My brothers would challenge me. They were sometimes my best friends and sometimes my worst enemies.  I continued to see my cousins who lived next store and were neighbors. We had our own little gang in a small town outside of Worcester.  We were in many ways innocent but challenging too. Today it would be called bullying but for us it was protection, a voice and connection to make sure that we watched each other’s backs.

I remember the days when we would make sure that people on the bus wouldn’t tease any of us in our little group.   We actually made a bus driver upset once and cry as we stood up after one of us was called a jerk. Today, that would be suspension and if anything maybe even being kicked off the bus.  Back then our parents were called, we apologized, learned a lesson.  We taught the bus driver a lesson too — that none of us would allow for someone to be mean to one of our own.   We were  close in age and I remember staying back a grade and being taunted about it over and over again by this boy. My cousin, who was just 6 months older, gave out a punch to create a black eye and bloody lip to the kid who teased me on the playground. He was certainly talked to.  But yet again the other kids knew that we were a group and to be careful if you were not nice or fair to any one of us.

As I grew older and had children. the laws, language and the responses changed. My children, just like in my old neighborhood, had their “group”  and you couldn’t call it a gang as that is not socially appropriate. They would stick up for each other but the things that they did related to a challenge. It was hard.  One time my son was scared and took a letter opener from a teacher’s desk.  He was instantly suspended and no discussion. The principal had left him alone in the room and he was having hallucinations that someone was going to hurt him. He didn’t talk to anyone  but just took the opener.  Of course I explained to him  the meaning of “safe” and “unsafe” behavior.  (This was another set of terms I really do not remember being taught so strongly.  Back then, it was right or wrong with no in between).  For my son, I would have to advocate and discuss with the school why they should allow him to come to school again.

There were other incidents as I raised my children and I would look at my childhood memories and compare.  It was like us years ago being the bully and victim in the same day but now the school had a very different response.  Because my child that wasn’t falling on the developmental chart, he wasn’t labeled as being “Delayed”  instead I was told he was “healthy” except he  would struggle over and over again.  He would be teased with no one to stick up for him, he would do something back and get blamed.  It was an up and down battle as I would ask for the skills to be taught – one of mediation, and advocacy for a friend that would allow growth, responsibility and honesty.  But the difference was that I wanted there to be an opportunity of learning, generalizing and most of all being supported as he learned.

Teachers would be trained on how to recognize and deal with bullying year after year. But I often wondered, Did they also get education or professional development on mental health, trauma, or loss/grief in children?  It is hard to ask for help from a teacher that has no training.  Even after the tragedy in Newton, CT – that was going to be the conversation we had.  Here we are still with the same professional development days: Bullying, CPR, MCAS, and the Massachusetts framework and curriculum.   Where are the trainings on mental health, trauma, adoption/loss / grief, and mediation for children? I wanted to know.

I wish that a PTO would be open to teaching teachers about ALL children. Not just the soccer kids!

Teachers have an amazing and unique job to be with children 6 hours of the day, to teach them a variety of subjects.  But what about skills of learning what do in a difficult situation and how to deal with problems so that society accepts you as a child?  I believe that is the responsibility of the community, school and parent.

Let’s discuss the elephant in the room and get real results!

Meri Viano is our guest blogger.  She is the parent of two sons and a daughter who continue to inspire her blog posts.

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Don’t pass by

May 15th, 2016

sad seated girlWhen I was in middle school and early high school, I would see kids in my grade who were struggling emotionally, and I would turn away, pretend I didn’t see their pain, and not give them another thought. I would feel bad, but I didn’t know what to do with that, and I certainly didn’t want my friends to think I cared about the super weird kid in math class who kept to herself. Teenagers can be cruel, and no way was I risking my somewhat okay level in the middle school social economy by showing compassion for someone who was so obviously different, strange, and maybe even dangerous for all I knew. No, I desperately wanted to fit in, and my status with my friends would not be jeopardized by some “emo kid.”

Three years later, I became that “emo kid” who got words like “bi-polar” and “crazy” and “weird” thrown at them as weapons instead of truths. I had my first episode, though it would be 10 years later before the mention of bipolar was brought up in a clinical setting as a feasible diagnosis, and the world as I knew it fell apart. My friends grew more and more distant as the hospitalizations piled up, and I would have given absolutely anything for a visit from my family. Everything I thought I knew about myself suddenly became symptoms of my anxiety, depression, and mania. You mean not everyone is absolutely terrified of social situations but sucks it up anyway? You mean I’m not supposed to consistently want to die at least half of every day? And you’re telling me I’m not supposed to wake up 8 to 10 times every night with bad dreams? And not everyone’s mood goes up and down as quickly as mine?

I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into depression with all this clinical exposure, and when I wasn’t in hospitals, it became harder and harder to pretend to everyone at school that I was doing well. I had appointments during school hours that I played off as doctor appointments, but were really specialists and evaluators to help with my psychiatric treatment. My grades were starting to reflect my absences as well. I was silently suffering, and no one at school bothered to ask how I was.

If I could change anything about my actions in life, it would be how I passed by that girl in middle school and did nothing as people ridiculed and ignored her. Because now I know what it’s like to not have a friend in the world to count on, and I know what it’s like to feel different and strange and unwanted by everyone you know. And how all you want to do is curl up in a ball and die, but you keep going anyway. Now, I don’t see that girl as strange, or weird, or dangerous. I see her bravery and resilience in visibly fighting a fight that none of us understood, but finding the strength to do it anyway.

Everyone who has a mental health condition, is fighting that fight in some capacity every day. Whether it’s hanging on for one more day when all you want to do is disappear forever, or dealing with those awful voices in your head that just won’t stop and are often very scary. Or going through trauma therapy or trying to get over your anxiety. Or even just talking with someone when you need to, or helping someone you think might need it. These are all very hard steps, and if someone, anyone, at school had stopped for me instead of passing me by, my journey might not have needed to take as long as it did.

It wasn’t until I was in the same shoes that I found my compassion, but it doesn’t need to get to that point. After all, we are all fighting something, some of us are just better at hiding it. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be open to embracing differences, not afraid of them. And don’t pass by.

Our guest blogger is a young adult who wishes to write anonymously.

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My experience with public school

March 20th, 2016

girl studyingThroughout my public school years I always struggled with teachers, school counselors, and just about everybody in administration. When I began school, I started having problems immediately. No one there believed that I had mental illnesses. I did get a 504 plan starting in the 3rd grade. It consisted of bathroom breaks or breaks in general without questions, but my teacher didn’t follow my accommodations at all. I had the same accommodations on my 504 plan each year and each year the school did not follow it. I was given a pass to go to guidance and the school nurse whenever I needed. Multiple times when I would go to the nurse, she would tell me I was faking and send me back to class.

One incident happened where I was having a severe panic attack.  I went to my guidance counselor because I needed someone immediately but she was no help. As I was walking in, she was ready to walk out. She saw I was in distress so she sat me down to talk – or so I thought. I sat down, then she said she didn’t have time to talk because she had lunch duty.  She handed me a piece of chocolate and left me in her office alone. I started really freaking out because I didn’t know what to do. I was not allowed to call my mom because the school didn’t want me to go home when I had a panic attack. I was scared and felt I couldn’t trust anyone. When she came back, she looked at me with a nasty look and asked me why I was still in her office. I couldn’t even talk because of how bad I was panicking.

I was diagnosed with depression right before I started junior high, along with the anxiety I already had. My teachers constantly picked on me for falling asleep in class even though it was my medication making me tired. I had one teacher yell at me and tell me I should go take my meds in front of my entire class. I was extremely embarrassed.

I was always a quiet kid but I started getting mouthy with my teachers because they treated me with no respect whatsoever. They would threaten to take things from me, send me to the office and, in some cases, they would give me detention or an in-school suspension. My teachers still didn’t follow my 504 plan.

My high school years were the worst of all. I tried a new school that eventually didn’t work out due to my mental illnesses. I went back to my old school. After years of fighting with the school, I finally got an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Even with an IEP, the school still did not do what they agreed to do for me. I stopped going because I was having a really hard time.

I got diagnosed with agoraphobia shortly after that. My psychiatrist filled out a home/hospital form, which is a doctor’s order that lets a student be educated at home. During this time, the school sent cops to my house, filed a CHINS on me and called the Department of Children and Families. After being out for two school years, I went back for a short time to see if they would help me get back on track. The only thing they did was put me in a “quiet” room which was really the printer/fax machine/microwave/coffee maker/student file room.  Teachers constantly were in and out to get stuff or do something and would always tried to converse with me while I would try to work.

Finally, after doing all I could do to get the school to help me and listen, I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to leave public school altogether and get my GED. Being out of school relieved a lot of stress and anxiety from my life.

I wanted this blog to end with a happy ending, like most of them. But my story isn’t over yet.   I have big plans for my future and I won’t let anything hold me back.

G.G, a 16 year old youth, is our guest blogger.  G.G. enjoys music, the arts and has completed the intern program at Youth MOVE Massachusetts.

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Schools, photo IDs and privacy

May 28th, 2012

Every year when children return to school, parents wade through and sign a stack of forms.  Buried in the middle is a form where you check off one box giving permission to have your son or daughter’s picture taken for a student ID and another for the school to take or use their photo if the media should need it.  What if you discovered the school offered that photo to the police for a photo line up?

This is exactly what happened to one student at a Boston high school.  Here are the facts.  The student left the school and got on a public bus to return home.  Later in the day, police allege that he robbed another student of his cell phone and ipod.  The detective on the case went to the police officer at the school to see if he could obtain a student photo.  This police officer, in turn, went to school staff who handed him the student ID, which had a photo, name and date of birth.  The police did not have a search warrant and no one had asked for or received parental consent. 

However, the background of the ID was quite different from other photos the detective had.  So the police officer assigned to the school went back to school staff and asked for and received several more student photo IDs.  These other students probably bore some resemblance to the suspected student (no doubt they were all male) and all their pictures had been taken in front of the same background.  Again, there was no search warrant or parental notification or consent. The photos were enlarged and the names and birth dates were removed.

The victim made an identification, charges were filed and the case went to court.  The judge in juvenile court barred the police and district attorney’s office from using the photo array as evidence saying the student had a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”  An appeal was filed and it was heard before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  Last week, the court sent the case back to the juvenile court saying there wasn’t enough evidence presented in the case on how student ID cards are created and used in order for them to made a decision.  “In ruling as he did, the judge made certain assumptions about the photograph that may well be correct, but evidence supporting the assumptions is not in the record before us,” Justice Margot Botsford wrote for a unanimous court.

After many well-publicised school shootings, beginning with Columbine in 1999, towns and cities across the U.S. began locating police officers in schools.  Administrators, staff, parents and the community were worried about safety.  Today, many schools have police or school resource officers located on school grounds.  Unsurprisingly, when school resource officers are co-located they are often treated as fellow school staff. The boundaries can blur.

A parent’s job is to keep their child from harm. We do this because we love our children and know that while we can’t keep every hurt at bay, we can try to shield them from a great deal.  When we sign those permission forms for a photo to be taken or used for media purposes, none of us imagine we are agreeing to let the police use those photos.  Besides the student who the police suspected, there were 6 or 7 other students whose photo IDs were pulled by the resource officer and handed over to the detective.  These students were guilty of nothing more than bearing a resemblance to the student suspected of robbery or having their picture taken in front of the same background. What if any of them had been mistakenly identified? For a parent to willingly agree to have their child’s photo in a police line up qualifies as putting their child in harm’s way.

Schools often take on the task of teaching students to be wary of sharing personal information on the internet, facebook or by texting.  Parents often worry about their child’s personal information being used for some nefarious purpose but also know that a photo ID can benefit their child as well.  We all recognize the need for the school to have information about our children.  What should be our expectation of privacy?

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