Elementary School Violence: Parents Reach Breaking Point, ‘You have to fail to get the appropriate level of service’

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Teachers across the United States tell Channel 13 that what’s happening in Iowa is also happening in their elementary school classrooms.

“(Children) Screaming.  Cursing.  I’ve been stabbed with a pencil.”

Ashlee May, a second-grade teacher leaving Des Moines Public Schools for the suburbs next fall, said behavior that used to be considered outrageous is now commonplace.  Teachers are forced to take a hands-off approach.  Violent outbursts force well-behaved students into the hallway for safety.  The practice is widely known as a “room clear.”

Iowa State Education Association Executive Director Mary Jane Cobb said, “Every time that we have a room clear, all of the kids suffer.”

Now, imagine if you were the parent receiving the phone call informing you that your child’s behavior had caused it.  Des Moines mother Dawn White said, "(I) get scared before I answer or see who’s calling because I’m like, 'Oh, my gosh.  What did (my son) do now?'”

When White and her husband adopted Xandir at age three, they couldn’t have predicted the special bond he would form with his new big sister.  Lillian is 16 now.  Xandir is 10.  She loves to talk about Xandir’s positive attributes.  “He is so kind.  He is so sweet and funny,” said Lillian.  “But then something ticks him off and he just explodes and it’s crazy to see that’s still him.  It’s a completely different person.”

Dawn said, “I feel bad for the other kids (in Xandir’s classroom).  They have to leave because there’s no way to get him out of the room when he’s that violent."

The family is responding to comments generated by our last story from people who want to label all bad classroom behavior as a case of “bad parenting.”  Lillian said that could not be further from the truth.  “It’s not (Xandir) being a spoiled child.  He is autistic.  He’s schizophrenic.  He’s got ADHD.  He’s got all kinds of issues … drugs and alcohol.  While (Xandir’s birth mother) was pregnant with him she didn’t care at all.”  Lillian said her parents rescued Xandir with tremendous love and support.

But the cards are stacked against this family.  Ask anyone associated with children’s mental health in Iowa.  “We’re getting exactly the outcome that we have designed the system to give us today,” said Anne Starr.  She is the CEO of Orchard Place, a charity providing mental health services to 10,000 children and teens in Iowa.  When Starr sees images of destroyed classrooms, she sees scared kids and parents who are desperate “…to have information and get access to timely (mental health) services.  And to have payment for those services.  There’s a reason why they feel the way they do.”

Dawn said, “(At) The beginning of this year, we tried to put Xandir in-patient at the hospital, but there were no beds anywhere in the state.  We were wait-listed twice.  (Nothing opened up.)  So, we never actually got (any form of in-patient service) this year.”

Federal law requires students with disabilities, including behavioral disabilities, to be taught in their “least restrictive environment,” meaning educated with children who are non-disabled.  Parents, teachers, and administrators say most of the time, it works great.  But when violence breaks out, general education teachers aren’t trained to deal with it.  The federal government doesn’t spend enough money to put someone qualified in the classroom to assist.  Neither do many states.  The National Council on Disability, a non-partisan government entity, points out that Congress appropriates less than half of the money promised for disabled children when the program began in 1975.

Starr said, “We know (disabled children are) going to fail.”  Jon Sheldahl is in charge of Heartland Area Education Agency.  It’s the place school districts turn to for help managing students with special behavior needs.  He acknowledged those students may start each morning in a general education classroom.  Explosive behavior may then lead them to a special education classroom.  Xandir’s mother, Dawn, said, “That’s basically how it works.”

Teachers nationwide tell Channel 13 that this scenario can play out multiple times per day, in an effort to keep placing a child in his or her least restrictive environment.  Sheldahl said, “When things aren’t working, you need to be able to reconvene and say this isn’t working.”

Anne Starr sits on a task force formed in February to address the shortage of children’s mental health services in central Iowa.  She said the way the system is currently set-up, “You have to fail to get the appropriate level of service.”  In some cases, a child will become suicidal before receiving treatment.  Starr said Orchard place is in the process of creating and staffing a crisis intervention hotline and response team.  She said it will cost roughly $1,000,000 to implement.  Based on research, they anticipate fielding 2,500 calls annually, including from schools experiencing a crisis.

The White Family is grateful for what they describe as incredible support from a number of public school teachers, including Ashlee May.  She taught Xandir in second grade and formed a special bond with the Whites.  All of them wish Xandir could get a higher level of professional care.  “I’m sorry,” said Dawn.  “But I don’t know what else to do.”

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