Public schools not fair to anyone and failing everyone
by Robert Roper
On Tuesday, March 14, the House Education Committee took testimony on a bill, H. 409, An act relating to keeping Vermont students safe by restricting the use of restraints and seclusion in schools, from Dr. Mel Houser, Executive Director of All Brains Belong. The bill was crafted to deal with the fact that an alarming number of very young students in Vermont public schools are being subjected to serious trauma as the result of being physically restrained by teachers and staff.
Houser recounted some disturbing stories experienced by her own patients.
One case involved a five-year-old who, on his or her (the doctor was not specific) first day of school was locked in a four foot by nine foot windowless closet, alone, for ninety minutes. “Imagine this small child,” Houser asked the committee, “trapped in this small space, crying for their mother, and no one comes. They have no idea what’s happening, and the brain assumes the worst. There is internal chaos. The nervous system is overcome by panic and desperation. And here’s the result of that: when an adult finally opened the door after the child had screamed themselves to exhaustion… they saw that that child had removed all of their clothes, scratched up their tiny, forty-pound body, and urinated all over themselves…. This was their introduction to public school.”
The second story Houser told was of a seven-year-old whose parents reached out to her because the child didn’t want to go to school, and they were receiving threatening letters regarding truancy. “When I probed for more information,” said Houser, “I found that two months prior the child had been restrained by an administrator. The parents claimed to me that they had been called to pick up their child, and when they arrived, they found that their small child had been pinned, face down, immobilized by a large adult male under a cafeteria bench for a total of two hours.”
“What we know about trauma is that the impact of trauma can last long beyond the incident itself. A trauma response… can be triggered by being in the environment where the trauma took place or even by memory of the event or by anything. So, when this seven-year-old is told it’s time to go to school in the morning, his brain associates school with being pinned down with their face to the ground of the cold cafeteria floor with a large adult male pressing their knee into his back. So, we have a seven-year-old with post-traumatic stress from trying to access their education.”
These are not isolated incidents. Houser cited data reporting that at least 587 kids are restrained or secluded each year in our public schools, and these incidents are likely underreported. Disproportionately, the victims of these practices are children with disabilities and children of color.
Earlier testimony by teachers and administrators on the growing problem with disruptive behavior and violence by students cited a lack of teacher training on how to deal with children who have mental health issues, and an overall lack of staff to handle outbursts when they occur – this despite Vermont having the lowest staff-to-student ratio in the country at about 4:1. (See related Behind the Lines story HERE).
These incidents are not just traumatic for the child, but also for the other children in the class who witness their fellow classmate being violently subdued and for the school staff who are put into a position where they have to make some awful choices that lead to morally problematic actions on their part.
Though Houser did not tell what the circumstances were that led to the child being locked in the closet for ninety minutes, a similar story (or maybe it was the same one told by someone else) recounted that the teacher was faced with a situation where she thought the child who was acting out was a danger to the other students in the classroom and had to be separated. There was nobody available to supervise the student who had to be separated, and she had to choose between staying with that one child and leaving her classroom full of very young students unsupervised until the parents of the child could come get the kid. It was a no-win situation with no good options available.
This is where our system of one-size-fits-all, throw-all-the-kids-into-the-same-building-and-call-it-equitable public education breaks down.
Teachers are not mental health professionals. Expecting every teacher and staff member in a school to be both an expert in their field of education or administration and to be a professional mental health counselor at the same time is just not practical. They are very different callings requiring different skill sets and training. Such a requirement would almost certainly lead to teacher shortages.
Our current system of education is not fair to anyone and is failing everyone.
It is time we all accepted the fact that children are different and require different learning environments and different types of professional services in order to get the appropriate education that each one of them deserves – and is entitled to. Some kids need big, competitive, highly social classroom environments to be stimulated enough to learn and not be bored. Some kids need small, quiet spaces that allow them to concentrate and focus. Some kids learn best through hands on experience, and others through listening and observing. Some kids thrive in diverse peer groups, and others feel more comfortable and emotionally safer with kids they can readily identify with. Some kids need teachers with specific training beyond subject matter to cope with special needs, and others do not.
It is not compassionate or fair to throw all these different emotional and educational needs into the same box and expect it to end well for all or even most of them. The best, most efficient, and effective way to accommodate every kid, is to develop a system that allows for multiple educational environment options, and from those options, allow students and their families to choose and attend a school (or some other program or home school) that works best for them.
As Dr. Houser pointed out, “What we know is that the brain needs to feel safe in order to be able to learn. And many children in Vermont don’t feel safe in school.” This is an unacceptable situation. And a system that has to decide that the best way to keep some of its students feeling safe is to lock another kid in a closet is broken beyond repair. It sure as heck ain’t equitable.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com