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Beyond Labels: How My Son's Behavioral Issues Made Me a More Compassionate Teacher

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The heavyset 8th grade boy leaned in close to the petite blonde girl, his lunchbox swinging from his backpack, shaggy hair askew, and asked, “Do you know who God is?” Taken aback, the girl whispered, “Yes.” The boy said, “Good, ‘cause you’re going to meet him.” Then he made a gun with his fingers and shot her, boom.

What did she think? The school police officer said that she and her parents were “shaken.” Yes, of course. Maybe even terrified. I certainly was. The boy, our son, frequently does things that put him on the edge of societal and school norms, but this was the worst yet.

The incident occurred during pickup after a rough day at school for Paul, who has Asperger’s syndrome. He had had a particularly hard time during science class, in which other students often goaded him into loud, defensive posturing or pushed him into his interior world, where he would make intricate, color-coded diagrams on scattered sheets of notebook paper. On this day, he had drawn the floor plan of a building with all the exits, escape routes, alarms, and various academic departments in thin black outlines and filled it in with an ordered spectrum of colors. Some classmates saw the diagram and told the teacher they thought he was planning to blow up the school. Paul says they were trying to get him in trouble. On closer investigation, the school dean realized the drawing was of the science building at the college where Paul’s father teaches. False alarm, but hackles were raised.

Of course, pretending to shoot a classmate, even without a weapon, is terroristic threatening. The school immediately suspended our son. The next day, we attended an agonizing session with the school’s counselor, psychologist, dean of students, special education teacher, police officer, and the district’s director of secondary education. We answered innumerable questions. Do you have guns in your home? BB guns? Hunting bows? Knives other than kitchen knives? Alcohol? (No. No. No. A pocket knife. Yes.) They asked about drugs, explosive devices, and unmonitored Internet access. (No. What? Yes.) They asked my husband, “Doesn’t your son go to the science department with you after school? What does he do?” We have been thrilled that he is interested in chemistry, and Paul had been sitting in on the freshman labs with an understanding professor.

They asked, “What does he look at online?” They wanted to know if he would build a weapon. A bomb. This is my son we were talking about, the clear-eyed youth who dismantled gadgets, who built elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine trainscapes, who read the City of Ember so often he had it memorized. When did he become a terrorist?

The Toll of Bullying

By this point in the meeting I had dug a groove in my left palm with my right thumbnail and thought I would choke. Then they asked if Paul had experienced any significant rejection. Well, there was the certified preschool that sent home numerous gloomy “Sunshine Reports” cataloguing our four-year-old’s refusal to self-toilet or nap. I remembered the kindergarten aid who demanded his removal from the after-school program for dumping out bins of blocks, but who also rejected offers from the school psychologist to work with Paul in her classroom. And the neighborhood kids who played on Paul’s desperate need to belong by setting him up for a fight, and the Boy Scouts of America who left boys unsupervised and then suspended him a year ago for fighting. I answered, “Yes.”

In fact, Paul had been bullied for years. He was taunted on playgrounds, and by 5th grade he was writing regularly about bullies in his school journal. By middle school, he had multiple discipline referrals for arguing with classmates. We tried to ameliorate the situation with parent-teacher meetings, therapy, and a needs-specific summer camp. But the bullying never ceased, and now, as a freshman, Paul has given up asking for help. He’s consistently told not to react to the bullies, in hopes they will stop. But in frustration, he sometimes lashes out at other students, frequently including those least deserving of his torments.

The police officer reported that the girl’s family would not press charges. I was profoundly grateful, of course. We signed a contract agreeing to monitor Paul’s Internet usage, and he was suspended for two more days—days he spent storming about the injustice of the situation, talking to his therapist, and attending labs at the college.

Beyond Paperwork

Two weeks later, we had a follow-up meeting that Paul’s therapist also attended. He probed gently about the bullying and school solutions. The counselor, the special education teacher, and school psychologist described their intervention plan, but explained that bullying is hard to stop. He asked further, “Do you really think of Paul as a threat?” The three educators looked at their laps, then at each other, then at us. “Yes,” they said.

Those educators and the other personnel at our son’s school didn’t do anything wrong in their approach to working with Paul; technically, they were fair in how they treated him. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling they didn’t look beyond his IEP. When they looked at Paul, they saw his Asperger’s—and the challenges it posed for him and them. But when I looked at my child, I saw his fascination with diagrams, his desperation for friends, and his profound frustration with a system that, instead of protecting him from bullying, expects him to learn to deal with it.

After a week, I returned to my own classroom and the diverse students waiting for me there. During my absence, I lost five students to homebound studies or to dropping out: two pregnancies, anxiety, depression, and moving. Another student ran away for a week, while one who had been suspended for having an illegal substance returned. I don’t know if they were ever bullied, but I do know they had needs that weren’t being met, by me or anyone else. They deserved better.

Unlike Paul, none of them had an IEP with a list of recommendations for teachers. I had only what I knew from parent meetings and personal observations to help those students overcome obstacles and learn successfully. And, with almost 160 students overall, I found those personal interventions challenging.

But after our son’s problems, I realized how much our system depends on the teacher's ability to look beyond paperwork (or the lack of it) to work with students as individuals. It’s understandable to be frustrated by a student who won’t participate or has distracting behaviors. This year when a student refused to answer questions in my class, I asked her coach for background information, and learned that she had recently been dismissed from the school’s speech program. Now, instead of calling on her in front of class, I have her come talk to me at my desk or after school.

When I noticed a student fidgeting with a gun lock and writing about guns in his assignments, I called the counselor and the parent, to discover the parents were deeply concerned about their son and have sought help from medical professionals. When the student asked to take an assessment in the hall because he felt closed in by the full class, I said OK. In the past I would have expected him to stay with the group. My experience with Paul has lead me to reevaluate my practice, putting students’ needs ahead of what makes teaching easier for me.

Thankfully, Paul is adjusting well to 9th grade, due in large part to his excellent teachers who make every effort to see him for who he is. As educators, we try to take an objective view of our students, but we must try also to see them through parental eyes. In a climate of testing, data, and special education documentation, this is hard. But parenting Paul through his first nine years of public school showed me the importance of trying. I cannot change or even understand everything students face outside my room, but I must give them every chance and encouragement to succeed inside it, and work my hardest to create an environment in which that can happen.

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