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Falling Between the Cracks

Marrissa is a bright child who is friendly and empathetic. Ms. Churchill, her special education teacher, is concerned because she believes that Marrissa is in special education classes only because of her family situation. Although doing well academically in both her general and special education classes, Marrissa is often left with irresponsible relatives where she is severely neglected while her mother goes out of town.


Ms. Churchill, a tenured teacher with five years experience, has always wanted to be a teacher. She began babysitting when she was 12 years old, and later taught gymnastics. During college she worked in a camp for children with autism and related communication disorders. This experience stimulated her interest in special education. She majored in early childhood at a small, liberal arts college, then taught for a year before entering graduate school in special education. Her current teaching job is in many ways an ideal one. The school is small and staffed by many competent, caring professionals who have been at the school for some time and who work together harmoniously and effectively. The children come from a fairly stable, working class neighborhood. For Ms. Churchill, teaching the children is easy, fun, and very rewarding, but working with their families is sometimes quite challenging.

Ms. Churchill grew up in a family of six. Her parents married after college and have been together ever since. Her mother stayed at home to raise their four children and her childhood was happily uneventful. Both of her parents were strong, competent people who placed their children and their family at the center of their lives. Ms. Churchill's home situation was supportive, loving, and helpful, not at all like many of the situations in which her students live. While Ms. Churchill firmly believes that teachers and families should work together, the families of some of her students have caused her to question when and how schools should intervene in family situations.

Perhaps Marrissa Donoue's situation best illustrates her concerns. Ms. Churchill vividly remembers the first time she met Marrissa. It was the first day of school and Marrissa bounced into her classroom, hugged Mrs. Churchill immediately, and announced that she was a good singer. She proceeded to demonstrate her singing ability. It was a captivating introduction, and with time, Ms. Churchill found Marrissa to be even more delightful. She is a bright, beautiful child with large brown eyes and a ready smile. Her father is Egyptian and her mother is Euro-American. Marrissa seems to have inherited the most attractive features of each. She is friendly and remarkably empathetic. One day early in the school year, Marrissa came in from the playground sobbing, so upset that she was gasping. When her teacher asked her what was the matter, she replied that she had joined in with three other children who were teasing and being mean to another child. Upon a moment’s reflection, she felt terrible about participating in the teasing and wanted to go apologize.

In spite of her great affection for this little girl, Ms. Churchill was initially concerned that Marrissa was classified as behavior disordered and placed in her special education classroom, even though it was only on a half-time basis. Marrissa performed well academically and socially in both her general and special education classes. As far as Ms. Churchill could tell, the only reason that Marrissa was in special education was her family situation. In Ms. Churchill’s school district, the regular kindergarten was only a half-day program and students walked or were brought to school by their parents. In contrast, special education kindergarten students had a full-day program and were bused to school.

According to school records, Marissa’s mother is diagnosed as schizophrenic and has been hospitalized on more than one occasion. Marrissa's parents never married but her father provides financial support and occasional back-up care when her mother is sick. Last year Ms. Donoue had difficulty getting Marrissa to school on a reliable and consistent basis and frequently left her home alone and unsupervised for long periods of time. Because of her frequent absences, Marissa was not benefiting maximally from her school experience and school personnel also felt she was in some jeopardy at home. Her teachers and the school counselor felt that Marrissa would benefit from the all-day kindergarden special education program and reliable transportation to school. Marrissa was therefore identified as having a behavior disorder, based upon observed moodiness and behavior outbursts which occurred during a period when her mother was hospitalized.

Mrs. Vincent, the school counselor, reported that she often felt like she was teaching Ms. Donoue how to parent. For example, on the first day that Marrissa rode a school bus in kindergarten, her mother walked her to the bus stop in her pajamas. Marrissa fed herself from the refrigerator, if her mother had managed to get to the grocery store. When this was not the case, Marrissa arrived at school hungry. Concerned about her nutritional needs, Mrs. Vincent completed and sent home forms so that Marrissa could receive free breakfasts. Unfortunately Ms. Donoue would not sign and return them. Marrissa was very protective of her mother and reluctant to talk about conditions at home, which made it even more difficult to know how best to deal with Ms. Donoue. Mrs. Vincent believed that, at six years of age, Marrissa was the adult in the family.

After kindergarten, Marrissa was shifted from full-time to part-time special education and placed in Mrs. Churchill's class. State policy set a maximum of 15 students in such classes and Mrs. Churchill's class had 14 students and a part-time assistant. Students ranged from first to fifth grade --- Marrissa was the only first grader.

At the beginning of the school year, the school sponsored a welcome night to give parents the opportunity to visit their children's classrooms and talk to their teachers. On that night Mrs. Churchill took great pains to describe and explain the system that she wanted to use to communicate with parents of her students. Her system involved sending charts home nightly for parental signature. The charts were set up on a weekly basis with space to report specific news such as upcoming field trips, reminders about bringing a swim-suit for adaptive physical education, and homework. Marrissa's mother, apparently angry that Marrissa was no longer eligible for bus transportation, complained about Mrs. Churchill's communication system. Instead of receiving charts, she wanted to use a spiral notebook for her notes. Mrs. Churchill agreed to her request and sent Marrissa's charts home in a spiral notebook every Monday but they were never returned. Mrs. Churchill wanted better communication but Ms. Donoue did not appear to be interested.

In October Marrissa’s mother sent a note to school indicating that she was going out of town, to visit a man. There was no information about where she was going, how long she would be gone, or how she could be reached in the case of an emergency. Mrs. Vincent related that Ms. Donoue had considered taking a similar trip the previous year but they had managed to convince her that she should not leave Marrissa. The note further indicated that Marrissa would be staying with her aunt and uncle while she was gone. Mrs. Vincent expressed concern about this because Mrs. Donoue had earlier reported that this home was not a good place for Marrissa. It seemed that she and Marrissa had once lived with this family but had moved because Ms. Donoue felt that her brother-in-law (Marrissa’s father’s brother) treated Marissa like a "piece of property."

After Ms. Donoue left on her trip, Marrissa started coming to school unkempt. Her hair was matted and she was dirty. When Ms. Churchill asked when Marrissa last had a bath, Marrissa replied, "my mother gave me one." Marrissa also confided that "it's really hard when you don't have a mom." Not only was Marrissa dirty, but she missed a number of days of school. One day she announced "We're not allowed to go to my house anymore because my mom forgot to pay the rent." She also explained that her uncle had taken her to the pound to pick up her cat. Apparently the cat had been meowing loudly outside their house so a neighbor called animal protection services to report it abandoned. When Marrissa's mom had been gone for two weeks, Ms. Churchill began calling the aunt and sending notes but she did not receive a response.

The next week Marrissa missed school on Monday and came at 11:00 on both Tuesday and Wednesday, ostensibly because her uncle was working the early shift and could not get Marrissa to school on time. Mrs. Vincent spoke to him on Wednesday after school and asked why Marrissa had been absent and late. When he replied that he was working, Mrs. Vincent told him that by law he was required to bring her to school. As they talked, Marrissa started crying. The uncle asked if he could bring her to school at 7:00 so that he could get to work on time. Mrs. Vincent replied that no staff would be at school that early.

The next day (Thursday), Marrissa arrived at 7:00 in the morning. The school janitor was the only adult present. As he moved around the school opening up the building, he noticed a child on the playground and brought her inside. When the first teacher arrived, he deposited Marrissa in her room. The teacher, a meticulous person who arrived early every day so that she could plan and organize her day, was upset about a child she didn't know being deposited in her classroom. It disrupted her routine, so as soon as the office personnel arrived, Marrissa was deposited in the office. By the time Mrs. Churchill arrived, Marrissa was in tears and a number of school staff were upset as well.

For several days Mrs. Churchill had observed that Marrissa seemed hungrier than normal and was eating other children's left-over food. Given what appeared to be such obvious neglect, Mrs. Vincent called protective services and made a report. A case-worker came quickly and interviewed Marrissa, who only reported the positive features of her aunt and uncle’s home. The case worker left saying that he did not think any action was needed, but asked to be called if the uncle did not pick Marrissa up on time. That evening the uncle was almost an hour and a half late in picking up Marrissa. When Mrs. Vincent called the case worker’s office as directed, she was informed that he had already gone home and would be away from the office for several days.

Friday was the last day before a three-day holiday. Marrissa came to school on time but obviously still had not had a bath. She was wearing the same dirty clothes and her legs looked chalky. She repeatedly complained that she was itching. When Mrs. Churchill asked why her legs and arms were so white, Marrissa explained that she had rubbed soap on them because they were itching. Mrs. Vincent called protective services, expressing concern that a three-day week-end was approaching and this child was being totally neglected. Social services would not send another case worker to investigate because one was already assigned and he had determined that no action was needed. Much to the dismay of both Mrs. Vincent and Mrs. Churchill, Marrissa returned to her aunt and uncle’s home for the long week-end.

Mrs. Churchill left school that day distraught, wishing she could take Marrissa home with her for the weekend. Mrs. Vincent had tried, on Marrissa’s behalf, to use the safe-guards within the system which were in place to protect children. She went home discouraged and frustrated that Marrissa, like many other children, was falling between the cracks and the system was failing her. Both teachers felt helpless and worried about Marrissa’s welfare over the long, three-day weekend. They wondered what, if anything, they could do to help her.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?



Additional Questions

  1. Why was Marrissa identified as having a behavior disorder and placed in special education?
  2. Does Marrisa’s family situation justify her placement in special education?
  3. Can you think of other resources her teachers and counselors might have used to help Marrissa?
  4. How involved should teachers and school personnel become in their student’s family issues?
  5. Should Mrs. Churchill have taken Marrissa home for the weekend? Why or why not?
  6. How "at risk" do you believe Marrissa was at her aunt and uncle’s home? At her mother’s?
  7. What rationale might the case worker from protective services have used to determine that no action was necessary in Marrissa’s situation?
  8. What would you have done to help Marrissa?

CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Characteristics and effects of the culturally and environmental milieu of the child and the family (e.g., cultural diversity, socioeconomic level, abuse/neglect, substance abuse, etc.).

The influence of diversity on assessment, eligibility, programming, and placement of exceptional learners.

The importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.


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