Category: Special Reports

Breaking Point: Bad Student Behavior Guaranteed

DES MOINES, Iowa — Photos keep pouring into Channel 13 from local teachers showing classrooms destroyed, and fresh bruises and scars on the educators’ arms and legs.   Parents in Winterset recently attended a standing-room-only school board meeting to voice their frustrations with disruptive and violent classroom behavior.   Marshalltown Community School District has lost 29 teachers since January.  That’s compared to 17 last year.  District leaders said one of the reasons, according to a survey, is student behavior.

When Ruth Ann Gaines was named 1998 Iowa Teacher of The Year, she couldn’t have imagined the day students would be rushed out of their classrooms and forced to stop learning, while one student is allowed to throw tables and chairs, hit the teacher, and ruin supplies.  The practice is used nationwide.  It is commonly referred to as a “room clear.”  “How is one (teacher) going to handle that?” Gaines wondered.  “That’s insane!”

Gaines isn’t just an educator.  She’s an Iowa state lawmaker and mother to a son with special needs.  He is an adult now, but Gaines remembers when her son had outbursts at school, and she can’t understand why policies have changed.  “(Teachers or administrators) cleared him out.  He was the one that was taken out of the classroom.  I think (that was the right thing to do) because once (the other) kids are taken out of the classroom, that totally disrupts everything that they’re comfortable with.  Kids need comfort.  Kids need stability even if they’re not special needs kids.  I mean, ‘special needs’ need it more, but to remove all the kids and let that (one student) destroy, how does that change behavior?”

Channel 13 learned that, in many cases, the plan all but guarantees bad behavior.  We obtained the written protocol for a central Iowa elementary school child who tries to “…escape the teacher’s demand or work task… and to gain attention.”  The child will “…pinch, hit, kick, bite, and throw objects at people…”  The plan calls for the child to complete a short work task, followed immediately by a highly preferred activity.  Teachers claim those are code words for the student being allowed to play games on an i-Pad.  The teacher is instructed to give “frequent high-fives, smiles, clapping, and verbal praise.”

“We should be working in changing the behavior of the child.  And I don’t think this necessarily changes,” said Gaines.  “It sounds like it reinforces (bad behavior).”

Experts say it wouldn’t be the first time one of these behavior plans got it wrong.  “You can accidentally reinforce negative behaviors,” said Dr, Stephen Mandler.  Mandler is the chief medical officer at Orchard Place, an organization that serves the mental and behavioral health needs of 10,000 children and teens in Central Iowa.  Mandler has helped craft countless behavior plans, and what he hears concerns him.  “Whenever I find out (something counterproductive) is happening, I contact the teachers and the school and I say this is not working the way it’s intended.”

Along with the full-time job of managing the behavior plan, the teacher is ordered to coach all of the other children in the classroom on how to ignore that particular child.  Dr. Mandler acknowledged, “It’s pretty hard to do.”  He said it’s also hard getting people in positions of power and influence to listen. “I’ve had this fantasy of being able to meet with some key legislators and key decision makers, and the problem is you can’t explain this (issue) in a sound bite.”

Rep. Gaines serves on the Iowa House Education Committee.  After watching our stories, she started asking questions and learned that lawmakers knew explosive behavior was a major problem during the last legislative session.  She said there was a plan to study it, but the bill did not advance.  Rep. Gaines said she learned the reason is that lawmakers couldn`t agree on who should be invited to educate them about it.

There are currently 4,660 of the above-described behavior plans (Individualized Education Plan) for the roughly 150,000 K-12 students served by Heartland Area Education Agency.  The total number of behavior plans is unknown because there are different types, and the agency does not track all of them.

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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