Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cho Copycat and Life is a Battlefield

On Saturdays, you know, I don't work. So I take it kind of slow, check out the weather, read the Wall Street Journal. If it's nice out I'll go outside and stare at the backyard, check for new buds, wild flowers, that sort of thing. We're pretty vegetation-starved by April in Chicago, and any sign of life makes us very happy.

If you haven't been in Chicago, by the way, in the springtime, when leaves and flowers are announcing themselves, literally bursting on the scene (with such drama), you're missing something. On a sunny day you can simply pass out it's so overwhelmingly stunning. It's like being in a musical. You half expect Julie Andrews to skip through the sidewalks, over the cracks, eyes dancing left and right at the rhododendrons singing, "The hills are alive, with the sound of music. . ."

Except we have no hills.

But yesterday, instead of reading my WSJ, I picked up my Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle is THE journal to read if you're looking for a job in academe, or if you work in academe and want to read the trials and tribulations of other academics. Not only can you find out who is leaving which university and WHY, but you can get all kinds of ideas about teaching and what kids are learning these days.

So I read a couple of pieces in the Chronicle and thought, hmmm, which do I review for my blog, since a couple of them really grabbed me. One was a review of the intelligentsia on religion (why in the world would anyone believe in anything that can't be proven, dummy me and the rest of the Big 3 Abrahamic tradition-bound-cleaving public) and the other was about how important it is for people who work in academia to KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT because everything they say in class can and will be posted on the Internet on some dissatisfied student's blog. Or worse yet, a video on YouTube.

Both would have been worthy things to blog about. However. . .

You know it was a beautiful day. And things happen. I locked up the house and headed off for shul (the synagogue), just feeling those allergies getting all excited and tingly. Across the street a neighbor walked her fabulous pedigreed dog. Let's call my neighbor Jill.

We waved.

Ordinarily I might have let it go at that and kept on my way, but it was a beautiful day, the kind of day you just don't hurry anywhere if you don't have to, so I crossed over to Jill to catch up with her news. We've never talked that much, but everyone on this block is really friendly and since nobody dares fight the cold to hang around and shmooze during the winter, spring is a kind of a social spring-time, too. So I was happy to stand on the street corner and talk with Jill.

Not that I got too close to the dog, I have to admit. Dogs like me, and I like dogs, I mean we have an understanding. But I don't like it when they simply have to show me how much they like me by jumping on me or licking me or sniffing at my skirt. I don't do the petting of the dog thing, and prefer a safe lunging distance. I hate it when they lunge.

"Oh, he won't jump on you," Jill says.

"I know, I trust him."

"He really won't."

"We're good, I'm okay," I say, reassuring her, yet stepping back another step.

She pulled the dog who was wagging his tail and drooling out of pure love and happiness, a little closer and asked me how long we've known each other. I thought about it. About 28 years. She was on the block when we moved here, I'm pretty sure. I've watched her kids grow and admired her dogs, too, for that long.

I asked about the boys, what were they doing, and she asked about mine. Somehow we got to talking about Cho. She asked had I read about what just happened in . . .she couldn't remember exactly where it was . . . Apparently some kid somewhere in the Chicago area wrote a story for class that really upset the teacher. . .full of spleen, murder, anger and hate. Just like one of Cho's plays.

"What happened?" I asked.

She couldn't remember the details, told me I could probably find the story online if I checked the Chicago papers. She reflected,

"Ya' know, my youngest was peer rejected, teased terribly as a little kid and he was pretty depressed. I'm really thankful that now, as an adult he's doing great. He survived his childhood."

I shared about my own kids' social angst, said that most of us do survive childhood, but it's not easy. It helps, of course, to have emotionally receptive families that encourage us to bounce off our feelings, express a little spleen.

We think most families are like that, emotion-sensitive, but many are not. In therapy I tell parents that they have to ask their children at the end of the school day:

Has anyone been mean to you, or picked on you today? How about your teacher? Was she nice to you? How was it out there in the big, world? Life is a battlefield, ya' know.

(Is life is a battlefield a Cheryl Crowe lyric, ? Talk about an interesting life/family!)

Jill, a teacher for many years, agreed. Life's a real challenge for every kid, much more so for some. The two of us could have talked for hours, but I really did want to get to shul, so I said goodbye to her and Poochie (name's changed, okay?!?) and headed off.

In shul, when my brain drifted to blogging, as it often does, I thought about this kid who copied Cho's writing style . I decided that that was more important to blog about that than whatever it was the Chronicle intelligentsia had me thinking about.

This morning I found the article Jill was talking about, and in the first draft of this post almost linked you over to the story. But after thinking long and hard about it I considered the idea that this kid's privacy has already been compromised, perhaps for good cause, who knows, but it wasn't right to add to his burden by announcing his name, yet again, on the Internet.

Let's call him John. One of the goals this month, apparently, for John's creative writing class was to learn to communicate ideas and emotions through writing. The students could write what they wanted but were warned that if they wrote something that posed a threat to self or others, the school could take action.

John was an excellent student. It sounds to me like he tried to meet the goals for the month but the caveat about posing a threat wasn't clear.

Either way, the teacher went, Gotcha'.

I don't think she did anything wrong. She reported the story to her supervisor and to the principal of the high school. They determined to report it to the police, and John was arrested for disorderly conduct. His father was interviewed and asked the first obvious question,

Is handing in a school assignment disorderly conduct?

What's a teacher to do? She couldn't risk another Virginia Tech!

I fantasize the following scene, bare with me if you're an educator, maybe it makes no sense.
The teacher reads the paper. She's upset, first tells a significant other who says, You have to turn this (him) in! The next day she tells her supervisor and the principal. They all agree that she should talk to the student alone, first. She arranges for that and addresses it like this, asks these questions in no particular order. . .

"Wow, John, that was quite a story. Do you mind if I ask you if it's based on your life or does it come from your imagination? Or where did it come from? Is it fiction? What do you hope to communicate by telling the story?"

The student answers. Then the teacher has the option of offering student resources at the school or outside mental health resources if appropriate. She might ask, "Are you upset about something? Do you have violent, real life thoughts? Would you like me to help you get a therapist, or maybe help get your family a therapist? It would all be kept confidential, maybe you'd feel better. We have to talk to your parents if we send you to see someone for help. "
The kid chose HER to tell his story. I feel she should have handled it first. Maybe she did. Maybe we don't have the whole story. The school, I'm pretty sure, can't offer a child any therapy or counseling without parental permission, at least I don't think so. But is there something wrong with that conversation before bringing in the parents and the police? I know that there are privacy rules, FERPA, the federal privacy act. I'm asking you educators out there for your opinions.

I know a teacher who once said,
"I'm not a rabbi. I'm not a priest. I'm not a minister or a psychologist.
Kids-- I don't wanna' hear about it."
Hey, I'm not judging.

In fact, I see many teachers who are in therapy who work in tough Chicago neighborhoods where it is common for students to walk away with anything teachers leaves on a desk when they step out of the room. On some days it feels to them like angry, sullen kids are in the majority and that haughty disrespectful, in-your-face behavior is the norm. Is a teacher supposed to help everyone of them? Any of them?

We have survivor research that indicates that people who survive family dysfunction and trauma in childhood can point to one person who saved them, who gave them the strength to get through adolescence, a person who said, You'll get out of here one day. You'll make it. Things will be better, you'll see.

Those people were often teachers.

And they didn't always have the kinds of chat I described above. More often than not, they simply showed that they cared, communicated that they understood the child's personal battlefield. To a degree, based upon the look on the child's face every day at school, based upon his writing, maybe they do understand. Empathy is medicine.

Empathy, however, is very difficult with belligerent and verbally violent children who may need to be admonished for their behavior in school, not patronized, whose families don't answer the phones because they're high or don't have a telephone that works, who need help but refuse to attend school to be there for the offer, who have already written off getting an education in favor of working the streets. Those kids are hard to reach.

The boy who wrote that story, the Cho copycat however, was not one of those difficult kids. The teacher might have tried talking to him, maybe she did. Reporting to the police did increase the odds he'd be evaluated by a psychiatrist, which he was, so maybe that was the administration's intent all along. Have him booked on something, then get him help. I've heard that before.

If a social worker like me were to work on a program to train educators to handle this problem, I'd need input from those of you with experience and ideas, who work in schools.

For sure leave a comment below and we can start talking (heck, anyone can do that anyway, I wrote about Lassie, didn't I?). Or you can email me at Therapydoc at I have to have made somebody angry with this post, right?

The lines are open.

Copyright 2007, TherapyDoc


Anonymous said...

"Love is a battlefield" - Pat Benatar song. Written by: mike chapman & holly knight

therapydoc said...

Thanks, anon. I'm not so up on these songs, didn't have time to google.

Batya said...

You brought up a lot of major points.
Kids suffer plenty. I had to choose between sending my sons to a "regular" hs and one that specialized in mld. I'm glad I chose the special one. They got top educations and they didn't have to be put in low level groups.

"Copy-cat" suicide is a problem in some places. A community I'm familiar with just had a couple.

Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...
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Miss 312 said...

I know you'll probably never come across this comment because it's now 2013 and you wrote this in 2007. I've just come across your blog this month and love it.

This post is one I can especially relate to. I teach preschoolers in a needy Chicago suburb. I have had all those things happen in my little room. My mom says I should write a book. I have wonderful and truly tragic stories about what my little dudes have been through. In preschool, when a student threatens to kill me, I talk to the student about their anger. I don't call the cops. I do call the school social worker, the parents, and anyone else who needs to be on my student's team. I've worked with DCFS, with guardians, with blended families, and with therapists. This is my first year teaching and it has been eye opening. I love my students and I help them through both major and minor tragedies. There are a lot of major tragedies over 9 months when you have 40 students in a high needs school. I've seen that look from a child who is desperately looking to you for help and safety in a time of great need. My students and I are a team. They've always got my back and I've always got theirs.

I like how you write that it is difficult to help everyone of the students. It's hard to turn the frustration away from our petty criminals and see them with care. It's hard. I've had a thieves. Though I find it much harder to turn the anger off when a child is choking or hurting another student. I really could write a book about all the events that take place in my room. Many are incredibly funny and wonderful moments. Others are heart-wrenching and angering. Too, I like how you write about the parents. Everyone has issues and I've got a lot of empathy. Even when the parent tells you they just got out of rehab and are trying their best to get their kid to school. Though the child shows up a half hour late and the parent often forgets to pick her up all together. I still love the family and am grateful they get her there at all. At least then I know she's getting food in her body, I can make sure she's being cared for, and I get to help the family as they get back on their feet. When they do get back on their feet. It's the best thing in the world.

Thanks for the post! I found it encouraging and relatable!

therapydoc said...

Miss 312, wow, 6 years ago I wrote that! And yours is the first truly informative comment (well, you are a Chicagoan, can relate). The frustrations of teaching in the public schools can be overwhelming, a set up for burn out. I truly hope you never do burn out, that instead you write that book and keep tending your garden of kids. We can collaborate on the PTA workshop, okay? Maybe one day someone will think it is time.

J said...

So many years later...I work in public special ed in the largest metropolitan school district in the country. My specialty is kids with autism, but we get kids with ED inexplicably tossed in there, too. My kids are little, 1-3 grades, but they have their share of suicidal and homicidal threats. I also get a fair number of threats to burn down the school or burn down cars and trains.
Protocol is to report to the counselor, if the students receive counseling on their IEPs, or to report to a supervisor, if they don't. Sometimes this results in adding on counseling, sometimes this results in conversation with families, sometimes this results in calls to CPS, sometimes this results in nothing, occasionally it results in the student being EMSed. By NYS law, there is never an option of confidentiality.
I always talk to the student, to the best of his or her ability, and try to find out more. However, I have to be careful, because in the formal report, if it shows that I somehow influenced what the student says, nothing will come of the event, there will be no intervention, and I will be at risk of losing my (tenured) job.

It is an exceptionally difficult situation, to be the one chosen and trusted by the student, but to have your hands tied by protocol and law.

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