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More Than a Teacher

Linda is in charge of all 9th-graders with learning and behavior problems in a large urban school. Dominique, one of her students, is experiencing serious health and emotional problems. Her mother, in the midst of a family crisis, is not attentive to her daughter’s needs. Linda wants to help but wonders about what her role should be.


Linda Johnson coordinates the 9th grade program for students identified as having learning disablities, mental handicaps, and  behavior disorders in a large urban school. Her caseload consists of all the 9th-grade students classified as having a mild to moderate disability and who are being served in special education as well as general education classrooms. Linda regularly monitors all her students' progress, which involves keeping track of each student's work in each class. Additionally, she teaches 9th-grade English to all students in her program.

Dominique Jeffery is in Linda’s fourth-period English class, which meets directly after lunch. Early in the year, Dominique started coming to Linda often with physical complaints and concerns.

"Mrs. Johnson, I feel awful--like I'm going to faint."

"What did you have for lunch?" Linda asked.


"What did you have for breakfast?"

"An apple," replied Dominique.

"Well, Dominique, no wonder you feel faint," Linda replied. "We’ve discussed this before. It’s not healthy to skip meals all the time. You need to start eating better or you will get sick," she added in her typical fashion. She couldn’t help noticing that Dominique looked thinner and paler than usual.

"I’m too fat and I need to lose ten pounds," Dominique replied stubbornly, "and anyway, I’m just not hungry. Eating always makes my stomach hurt."

Linda began reminding Dominique daily to eat lunch but Dominique continued to skip meals and complained of feeling sick often. After several weeks, Linda expressed her concern.

"Dominique, if you don’t start eating more regularly, I will need to call your mother," Linda advised her.

"Please don't, Mrs. Johnson! She'll get mad," Dominique pleaded.

Linda tried to convince Dominique that she was concerned for her health. She assured her that her mother needed to know, and would most likely understand. When Linda did talk to Dominique's mother, however, she was shocked by Mrs. Jeffery’s lackadaisical response.

"She's just doing that to get attention," Mrs. Jeffery replied when Linda conveyed her concerns about Dominique’s health and emotional status. "Dominique is so dramatic," she added dismissively. "She probably wants you to feel sorry for her so she won’t have to do school work."

"That sure wasn’t the reaction I expected," Linda thought to herself as she hung up the phone. "I thought she would be a little more concerned about her daughter’s health."

To Linda’s relief, Dominique began to report that she was eating lunch again and the physical complaints subsided. Linda continued to spend extra time with her, however, because she suspected that the girl might not be getting much attention at home.

Approximately five weeks later, Linda noticed that Dominique's grades took a sudden and dramatic nose dive. For three consecutive assignments, Dominique earned an F on her English quizzes. When Linda began to investigate, she discovered that Dominique’s other teachers were reporting similar problems. Her grades had dropped from Cs to Fs in all her classes.

"Dominique, what's going on? Why are you getting all these Fs? Aren't you studying?" asked Linda during the first available time she had for a talk with Dominique.

"I don't know, Mrs. Johnson. I just can't seem to concentrate anymore. I'm studying like I always have but everything seems too hard for me right now."

"I'll help you study," replied Linda and she began coaching Dominique for her tests.

Although Dominique now appeared to be better prepared, her grades did not improve because she began to miss classes.

After Dominique skipped a history test for which they had studied together, Linda began checking with the other teachers. She discovered that Dominique had missed all her morning classes except for physical education, her first class.

When Dominique appeared in English after lunch, Linda immediately pulled her aside. "Why did you miss that history test? I know you were prepared. And why are you skipping all these classes? What's going on?"

"I was talking to Anna in PE this morning. She was telling me about her family's problems. I started thinking about things and just sat outside all morning."

"But Dominique, you can't spend the morning outside. You need to be in class. You need to take these quizzes and you need to pull up your grades!"

In full view of her classmates, Dominique covered her face with her hands and began to cry. For the first time, Linda noticed the large bandage wrapped around the girl’s right hand.

"Sometimes I wish I were dead," Dominique said between sobs. "I think about dying all the time. This weekend I stuck my hand through a plate glass window. I kept looking at that glass and the blood and thinking about killing myself," Dominique said mournfully as she extended her injured hand. As the words poured out of her mouth, the tears intensified.

Uncertain about how to handle the situation, Linda gently guided Dominique out into the hallway. She knew it was not appropriate for her to allow Dominique to reveal such personal information in front of the other students.

Dominique's sobs intensified as she told Linda that her parents were getting a divorce and that they had been fighting a lot at home.

"I’m worried about what is going to happen to my brother and me," she confessed as she wiped her face with the tissue Linda handed her. She continued by expressing concerns about whether they would have to leave their house and whether they would have enough money on which to live.

Linda asked Dominique if she'd spoken to her parents about these concerns.

Dominique replied, "Yes, but they tell me not to worry. My mom says it's none of my business."

Linda replied, "But of course it's your business. You are a member of that family. Would it be okay for me to call your mom and talk with her about this?"

"Oh no, please don't, Mrs. Johnson. She'll get mad. She kicked my brother out of our house last week when she got mad at him."

Linda hesitated, uncertain about what to do or say next. What would be the best way to handle this situation? Should she call someone, and who should that be? What role should she play?


Discussion/Study Questions

1.    List what you learned/know 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.    How should a teacher respond when a student indicates that they are having suicidal thoughts?

2.    What services are available for students experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression?

3.    What policy should a school follow when dealing with a suicidal student?

4.    Should Linda notify Dominique’s parents?

5.    In light of Mrs. Jeffery’s reaction to the first call, what other steps should be taken to ensure Dominique’s physical and          emotional health and safety?

6.    Did Linda wait too long to intervene on Dominique’s behalf?

7.    What other behaviors did Dominique demonstrate that might have indicated depression or suicidal thoughts?

8.    Do you think it was ethical for Linda to leave her class unsupervised while she spoke to Dominique in the hall?

9.    How can you have private conversations with students during the school day?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Area:

Strategies for crisis prevention/intervention.

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

Other Areas:

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

Ethical practices for confidential communication to others about individuals with exceptional learning needs.


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