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Bad News

When one of Mike Salvatore’s students is arrested, Mike feels like a failure. Mike’s plan of action for dealing with Jamal’s behaviors had been successful for a while and he was optimistic that Jamal could overcome his past. In the end, however, it seemed that all was lost.


With ten minutes to spare before school started, Mike Salvatore flew into the faculty room, poured himself a quick half-cup of coffee, and opened the morning newspaper. The prominent headline that jumped off the page made Mike's heart skip a beat. Tears welled up in his eyes and he found himself struggling to maintain his composure.

The newspaper article described how a student at a neighboring high school had been arrested and charged with carrying a 9mm gun into school. The student, Jamal Harris, was one of Mike’s former students. He had been arrested and was being held at the downtown jail. Mike had fought to save Jamal from himself and his environment but, in the end, it looked as if the streets had won.

Mike was a teacher in a program for students with disabilities who had been expelled from other schools. Under the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), no exceptional student can be denied educational opportunities when expelled from a school due to an offense that is a manifestation or the direct result of the handicapping condition.

As he read the newspaper article, Mike was drawn back to his first encounter with Jamal two years ago. It was a rainy Monday in January and Mike was waiting at the bus ramp for his students to arrive. When the bus pulled up, a tall lanky boy with a wrinkled tee shirt bounced off and proceeded to give Mike a high five.

"Yo, man. You be the head dude? I'm Jamal Harris and I'm here to make your day."

"Yo, Jamal. So glad you could make it. I've been expecting you. If you'll just wait here while the other students get off the bus we'll head out for the class."

Jamal Harris proved to be the most annoying and difficult student Mike had ever had. He had been expelled from his previous school for physically assaulting a teacher. Jamal was willfully disobedient and created a whole new repertoire of attention getting behaviors that were new to Mike. Yet, there was something about Jamal’s personality and sense of humor that Mike appreciated.

You never knew what to expect from Jamal. Sometimes, he would call out names in the middle of a lesson or do his "gay" routine while removing his clothes in the middle of the classroom. One day, Jamal taped a food stamp to his head and pretended to be a food stamp for the whole day. He occasionally climbed the bookshelves or turned over all the desks and put them in a pile so he could be "King of the Mountain." He also relished locking himself in the class bathroom and going through a sexual simulation complete with sound effects. Once, Jamal asked to use the restroom and Mike responded by asking him to wait for two minutes until the computer lesson was over. Jamal proceeded to unzip his shorts and urinate all over the wall in the classroom. Every day was a new adventure.

Jamal was a bright young man with a measured IQ of slightly above average. Academically, he was on or above grade level. Jamal had lived with his grandmother since third grade. His mother was "on drugs big time" according to Jamal and his dad was "in the pen." Jamal was on Social Security for his disability and for the most part he and his grandmother had a good relationship.

Jamal's grandmother participated in numerous conferences and was very interested in his progress. She was very supportive of anything the program did to help Jamal control his behavior and improve his quality of life. Jamal's grandmother understood how hard it was for a young boy growing up in the inner city.

During the first four months Mike dealt with Jamal’s misbehaviors by the usual approach of establishing rules and expectations and having structured rewards and consequences. Mike also tried time out and behavior contracts, but none of these strategies changed Jamal’s behavior.

In May, with summer school approaching, Mike decided to try a more humanistic approach. He began to develop a plan of action, which involved Jamal and Mike handling misbehaviors together through problem solving and sharing of points of view. Jamal began to respond and made a lot of progress.

After a year and a half in the program, Mike approached Jamal and asked, "Jamal, how would you like to escape this place and go to Burger King for lunch?"

Jamal loved Whoppers and enthusiastically replied, " I'd give anything for a Whopper, fries, and a chocolate milkshake! Can I have a shake? Ain't no good without the shake." Mike quickly agreed to spring for a chocolate shake.

With the Whoppers and fries in front of them, Mike said, "You know, Jamal, I’m really proud of you and how you have learned to control your behavior."

Jamal chortled and as he finished slurping his shake he said, "You're not going soft on me, are you? Like you goin to cry or somethin? And don't even think about shaking my hand or given me no medal. Your know I hate all that syrupy stuff. You tryin to say somethin, spit it out."

Mike slowly began, "You have been really great for the past six months. What do you think about trying it out in the real world? Can you deal with going back to a resource room at Moorehaven High? Everyone at the center thinks you're ready and so do I. I 'd like you to try it, but only if you think you're ready."

Jamal thought about the suggested change and finally nodded his head and agreed. "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be. When you going to spring me?"

"Is two weeks, OK?" Mike asked.

When Jamal agreed, the plan was set in motion. Mike had already looked at a variety of options for Jamal. He had even seriously considered applying for foster parent status so Jamal could come live with him in the nearby community of White Springs. Jamal's grandmother had had a stroke and was having trouble keeping up a home for Jamal and herself. Mike had discussed the foster parent idea with his fellow teacher, Jim Smith. Jim had Mike write up the pros and cons of such an arrangement. The list made Mike aware of how risky it was for him to go through with such an idea. The list of negatives was a mile long.

Another option Mike considered for Jamal was training in hairstyling, one of Jamal’s talents. During his final three months at the center, Jamal was cutting and styling everyone's hair and doing a great job. Mike talked with the counselor at one of the magnet schools about getting Jamal admitted to their beautician and barber school program, but they wouldn’t have an opening for three months. So, everyone at the center agreed that Jamal should be placed at Moorehaven High with resource services until he could be admitted to the magnet school.

Unfortunately, Moorehaven proved to be too much. Jamal found it difficult to overcome the "bad boy" reputation he had earned there. Two weeks after he started at Moorehaven, he verbally assaulted two of his former teachers in the cafeteria. Although the official report found the teachers blameless, other teachers and students indicated that Jamal had been a frequent target of the two teachers. Jamal was suspended for ten days. After the suspension, Mike talked Jamal into going back and contacted the magnet school to see if his admittance could be rushed. The administrator suggested that Mike bring Jamal in for an interview.

Jamal went to the magnet school for the interview and met with the head teacher in the beautician/barber program. She quickly recognized Jamal’s natural talent and recommended that he be admitted. It was not long before Jamal was accepted into the program and placed in the introductory classes. Jamal thrived in the program and was very successful during the first semester--until his teacher began her maternity leave and a substitute was hired to cover the class until she returned. Within two weeks, all of Jamal’s negative behaviors returned and he was sent back to Moorehaven. Mike attempted to reach Jamal, but Jamal made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with Mike. School was "bad news" and he was tired of listening to the "jive."

Mike hadn't heard anything from Jamal in the past three months, and now here he was on the front page of the newspaper. The picture of Jamal Harris, with his head down and his hands handcuffed behind him, broke Mike's heart. "What could I have done differently?" Mike asked himself as he glanced back at the newspaper.




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. Is it realistic for teachers to expect that every child will succeed?
  2. Did Mike send Jamal back too soon?
  3. Was there anything else Mike could have done for Jamal to prevent his downfall?
  4. List some of the factors that contributed to Jamal’s failure to succeed in his new setting?
  5. Do you think Jamal got the support he needed to succeed in his new setting? What could have been done differently to improve the outcome for Jamal?
  6. Do you think Mike was too emotionally involved to be realistic about Jamal’s chances for success?
  7. How will the IDEA mandates dealing with disciplinary procedures for students with disabilities apply to Jamal’s future placement?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case


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

Demands of various learning environments (e.g., individualized instruction in general education classes).

Roles of students, parents, teachers, other school and community personnel in planning a student’s individualized program.

Typical concerns of parents of individuals with exceptional learning needs and appropriate strategies to help parents deal with these concerns.

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