The TV monitor glared at me from its ceiling-high perch in the corner of the empty middle school cafeteria. On the screen, people were running from a building. A muted “Breaking News” screamed from the television. A news headline crawling below it read, “13 Dead in Colorado High School Shooting.” My eyes, brain, and heart stumbled in startled unison. I had never read a headline like that before. The people running, I realized, were students.
It already had been my year from hell. I had left my comfort zone as a high school special education assistant working with disabled students, individuals whose learning and socialization skills were very limited, and had taken a middle school position in an EBD classroom of six or eight.
EBD stands for Emotional Behavior Disorder or Extreme Behavior Disorder. Students with this classification are not necessarily developmentally delayed intellectually or have learning disabilities, per se. They have, instead, mental or emotional issues that make learning a challenge and/or integrating them into regular classes difficult. EBD students can be angry, violent, oppositional, disrespectful, disruptive, lacking a sense of right from wrong, criminal, and uninterested in school or learning. But not all are. These students, however, were. Two already had court-ordered probation officers.
I was on an errand with one of the boys when I saw the CNN report from Columbine High School. I looked away from the television and pointed at something in the distance to distract him from seeing the monitor. It worked. While anger was at the core of his issues, Martell was different from the other students. He wanted to learn and was generally a reasonable, pleasant 11-year-old with a winning smile. The certified teacher in the classroom and I had determined that we needed to keep Martell away from the other EBD students as much as possible to minimize their influence on him. Therefore, unlike the others, he attended several regular classes with me accompanying him. I would work one-on-one with him after these classes doing assignments or reviewing what had been covered in class. The EBD teacher would valiantly attempt to teach the other students anything. As a rule, these attempts were chaotic and unsuccessful.
On this day, I had promised Martell if he stayed focused on his schoolwork, he could accompany me on an errand before lunch. He completed his work, without complaints or causing any problems. We were, therefore, on that errand when I spotted that shocking televised image.
We returned to the class and I pulled the teacher aside and told her what I had seen. We expected our students would learn of the events at Columbine High school during lunch and we prepared ourselves for a challenging afternoon with some of these students finding the events funny and being supportive of the shooters.
To be honest, though, I have no recollection of their post-lunch reaction or behavior.
That day, however, was a watershed moment in the history of the American education system. For all school staff members across the US, that day was dividing line; dates and events were thought of as BC or AC, before or after Columbine. The concept that schools were safe from gun violence and mass murders died that day.
Since then, numerous similar incidents have occurred. Many more students and teachers have died from bullet-terror in American schools. When the most recent of these massacres occurred in Parkland, Florida on February 14, I found myself buried in anger. Not shock as I had been by Columbine. Not surprise as I had been when incidents had occurred in my home state. Not sadness as I felt after Sandy Hook. But anger. How many times does this have to happen before a serious attempt is made to stop mass shootings, whether they are in schools, concerts, theaters, or malls, in the United States? How many people have to die because crazed, disgruntled, angry, misanthropes were able to purchase automatic rifles? Or steal them? Why have these unnecessary weapons been allowed in the public domain lo these many decades in the first place?
You might think, from those questions, I’m going to begin an anti-Second Amendment tirade. But I’m not. Been there, done that. Over and over again. It is a waste of time and energy because gun lovers have become deaf from the constant near-ear explosions of their pistols, rifles, and automatic weapons. I am saddened they have lost their hearing and suffer. I send my thoughts and fucking prayers.
Instead, I am going to focus on the other chief cause for these killings, mental health. But I’m going to aim at a specific aspect of the mental health picture news reporters, networks, and politicians seem to be avoiding discussing and exploring. That issue was alluded to earlier.
With each incident that has occurred, from Columbine to Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High, my first question has always been, “Is (or was) the shooter an EBD student?” I watch and read reports hoping for a coded clue of some sort that would answer that question. But it is never stated in that succinct term. Instead, words like, disturbed, angry, uncontrollable, violent, etc. are used, words that paint a picture, but do not put a frame on the image. Therefore, I have no proof any or all of the gunmen involved in mass-murder in schools was an EBD student, let alone even in a special ed program. But I suspect most were. The evidence is there. If they weren’t, they probably should have been.
But why, you might ask, don’t journalists or school personnel report after an incident that the murderer had a history in EBD programs? Why is that possibility never explored? If it turns out that the common link between these boys is their being in EBD programs, or perhaps abutting the edge of one, then we—school personnel, private mental health workers, police, parents, reporters, and lawmakers—could prevent future violence and killings. In the case of the Parkland high school, had authorities acted when they should have, the January report to the FBI, which was unforgivably ignored, would not have been necessary. Therefore, I repeat, why is the possible EBD connection not investigated?
The answer is laws.
The creation of special education in the public schools and the laws governing it occurred in 1975 with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) and evolved into 1990’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These laws were to provide an education that meets each child’s unique needs and prepares the child for the future, i.e. further education, employment, or independence and to protect the rights of equality for both the children and their parents. The law was complex, detailed, and challenging. For example, the law included a provision that limited punishment, discipline, or suspensions of special needs students if their school rule-breaking, inappropriate actions were the result of their condition or diagnosis. But an even more problematic provision of the law was that special needs students be placed in the least restrictive environment, one allowing interaction with non-impaired students. This worked fine with some populations. But, with time, it created a logistics nightmare; a growing number of classifications were created and each group needed its own classroom and/or staff. Oftentimes, no space was available making inclusion the only option, even inclusion of students who put other students in harm’s way, i.e. EBD students. That did not raise eyebrows, though, because in America, one is innocent until proven guilty. That did not raise red flags, though, because our policies on anything have always been reactive, not proactive.
Another issue the law addresses may play a major part in how the story is reported and how the people involved may be identified is privacy. One can’t, as I understand it, carelessly state in public forums that an individual is or was in a special education program without permission from the individual or his/her family. I cite an example from my first year as an assistant working with teenagers whose mental and social development was in the approximately 4-7 years of age.
We undertook an enormous art project, one to cover much of a massive cafeteria wall. When completed, we posted a sign that read, “Created by the Special Education Students in Room 107” and we named them. Our students were very proud of their project. The sign was taken down by administrators who reminded us the sign could say “Created by Special Education Students” or “Created by” and then name the students. The two pieces of information could not be linked. We went with the latter so each child could see his name on the wall. The painting remained there for years.
Certainly the laws were well-intentioned and fair. But, I wonder if the lawmakers and courts truly understood in 1975 the myriad of classifications of special education that would arise. Did they think special education was limited to sweet, benign “retarded” students, as they were called then, and physically challenged children whose mental development was normal? Did they understand it would include those “spacey” children we would later understand were autistic or had Asperger’s Syndrome? Did they consider those students so low-functioning their physical and communication skills were that of infants and would remain so for life?
But most important, did they realize that those students described as “disciplinary problems” in the past would now become special needs students and would not only be protected by the law but put other students at risk? Did they consider that when dealing with these students as disciplinary problems, school administrators would be hampered by the law stating special needs students cannot be punished for incidents that were the result of their diagnosis?
Like EBD students.
But there is another set of laws that protect the allegedly “mentally ill” perpetrators of mass murder with automatic rifles, another set of laws that block reporters and others from getting at the cause of the perpetrators’ behavior. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 protects the medical privacy of all Americans. Therefore, any documented information, current or from the past, regarding special needs classifications, psychiatric care, anger management, or medicinal prescriptions cannot be shared or released.
Again, while those laws are well-intentioned and protect the vast majority of Americans, there might be some times or some places which, and some people who might warrant exceptions to that law. There might be some occasions when the public’s right-to-know might supersede the individual’s right–to-privacy.
Wednesday, February 14, 2018 might have been one of those times. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida might have been one of those places. And Nikolas Cruz surely would have been one of those people. The system allowed Cruz to remain in school for longer than he should have, longer than growing evidence indicated. The system, created by laws, well-intentioned, but perhaps too broad, stymied school administrators and other knowledgeable professionals from forcing their hand and insisting he be placed in the proper environment and treated as a mentally ill person, not simply as a troubled, difficult student from a bad home or a painful past.
Seventeen people died needlessly because of the delusional, hateful, and violent acts of an individual who, neither should have been near them nor had any weapon, let alone an AR-15 assault rifle.
Attached is an important and inciteful article that supports, adds to, but also contradicts what I have said. It points out how difficult it is dealing with students who are “disciplinary problems.”