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Devoted to All


Charlotte Dempsy is a teacher at a special school for elementary students with severe emotional disorders. She feels that eleven-year-old Charlie is the only student in her 23 years of teaching whom she can't reach. Coming from a highly dysfunctional family, and exhibiting extreme obsessive/compulsive behaviors, Charlie is also a master of manipulation. Almost out of ideas, Charlotte decides to reach out and hug Charlie every time he gets in her face. Charlie responds by accusing Charlotte of molesting him and threatens to tell his father.


"Charlie, please sit down," stated Mrs. Dempsy as she positioned herself between the students in conflict.

"He’s in my face again, Mrs. Dempsy, and I can’t ignore it anymore," Rodney calmly commented. "Next time he does it I’m going to slug him." Rodney leaned over to pick up his pencil that Charlie had intentionally knocked off the desk.

"He was talking about me again. I could hear him. He doesn’t think I can hear him but I can. Yeah. He was talking about my mother. I don’t like it when they talk about my mother," sputtered Charlie in a whir of words, linking all the sentences together without taking a breath.

"I didn’t say nothing to him, Mrs. Dempsy. He just came over and got in my face." responded Rodney, raising his voice a bit to make sure he was not found guilty.

In all her 22 years of teaching, Charlotte Dempsy had never had a child in her class whom she seemingly just couldn’t reach. The Carnegie School, where she had taught for 19 years, was a well established special school for students in grades K-6 identified as severely emotionally disturbed. The school was located in a mid sized, northern, suburban community. The special school structure and environment had afforded Charlotte the opportunity to be very creative with her classes which usually had 8-10 fifth graders. Charlotte very strongly believed that experiential learning worked best for these types of students and, fortunately, her administration felt the same way. Because learning experientially usually required a great deal of planning, the teachers at Carnegie were given time to plan, create, and share effective teaching strategies and lesson plans. Learning units were cooperatively planned and almost always included interdisciplinary strategies. The students at Carnegie seemed to respond to these methods and teacher morale stayed high as a result.

Charlotte was well respected by her peers as an exceptional teacher and professional. She had won numerous awards for her work with children identified as severely emotionally disturbed and was often the person other teachers and even the administration came to for help with particular students. She was very confident in her abilities to teach; however, this student was really putting her to the test.

Charlie Johnson had been identified as having severe emotional difficulties at a very early age. Charlie was an only child. His mother, Beverly Johnson, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and had been in and out of hospitals long before Charlie was born. Currently, Mrs. Johnson was a full time resident in the nearby state mental facility. She was allowed occasional, heavily sedated, home visit. Carlie's father, Walter Johnson, was a very intelligent man who exhibited symptoms of manic depression. Mr. Johnson, however, had never been diagnosed. The only times that Charlotte had seen Walter Johnson, he was   wearing old worn-out clothes and was completely unkempt. Walter worked very hard as a chemical engineer with a leading-edge corporation to provide for his son and his wife’s care. Unfortunately, he had very little, if any, parenting skills. Charlie had been born at a very difficult time in their lives. Beverly was heavily medicated at the time she became pregnant, and Walter had to deal with a very sick wife at home. In his own defense, Walter retreated into an emotional cocoon, leaving Charlie without, Charlotte believed, any real nurturing at home.

Charlie basically ruled the roost at the Johnson home. Walter had not established any boundaries for his son and had provided him with everything money could buy. Charlie had the coolest and most expensive clothes which he insisted on replaceing once a month when they became dirty. He also had all the latest in Nintendo and Sega, a full-court lighted basketball pavilion in his back yard, and a huge tree house overlooking the neighbors. Aside from Charlie’s material belongings, the Johnson house was fairly modest, in a middle income-subdivision with a diverse group of homeowners. Walter was a loner in the neighborhood and the only friends Charlie had, at school and at home, were the occasional kids who came over to play Nintendo or basketball. Often, they didn’t even include Charlie. They insisted that he be a basketball substitute and they virtually never let him join the game.

On the surface, Charlie seemed like a typical eleven-year-old boy. He was well mannered when he wanted or needed something and he was very attuned as to how he could get it. He was a master of manipulation. In this respect, he not so different from other children in Charlotte’s class who had not received the love and attention they so desperately needed. However,  Charlie's excessive manipulation was not what bothered Charlotte the most.

Charlie also exhibited extreme obsessive/compulsive behaviors. For example, on the day before her class was to present a theme project to the rest of the school, Charlie scrubbed his face so much and so hard that it became raw and he had to be taken to the doctor. Charlie’s most apparent compulsion involved germs and absolute cleanliness. Obsessed with his clothes, he would routinely question Charlotte about spots on his shirts, pants, and sneakers.

"Look at this spot Mrs. Dempsey," Charlie would exclaim as he repeatedly pointed to a tiny spot on his shirt. "Will it come out? Do you think it will come out? How can I get this spot out? Can I go to the bathroom to get this spot out? It’s ruined. I'm gonna have to buy a new one."

Perhaps the most disruptive of Charlie’s behaviors was his habit of getting in other people's faces, including her own. Charlie knew very well that personal space was an issue with many of his classmates and he played up to that fact. He constantly made derogatory comments to classmates, not to instigate a fight, but to reduce them to emotional rubble. This was not so different from what Charlie was getting at home. Charlie was often physically abusive to his father, who was not a large man by any standards. In turn, Walter Johnson was emotionally abusive to his son.

"You’re a sicko like your mother," was Walter’s classic response.

By the midpoint of the year, Charlotte and her class were very frustrated with Charlie’s behavior. Charlotte had seen the tolerance level in her class go from maximum to absolute zero in a matter of three months. Never before had she had a class interrupt her teaching to ask if they could discuss a classmate who was currently out of the room. Charlotte had always tried to build a trusting relationship with her students by encouraging them to be forthright and honest, and this was no different. This time, however, she didn’t have an answer.

Charlotte had tried several approaches with Charlie: verbal cues and warnings, individual conferences and contracts, and ignoring him, but nothing seemed to work. At first, she confronted Charlie when he got in her face.

"What is it you need, Charlie? Is there something you need from me? What can I do to help you?" Charlotte prodded for answers, knowing there would be no response.

"You don’t like me. Nobody likes me. You think I’m a sicko like my mother. You think I’m a sicko like my mother," Charlie would repeat over and over again.

Charlotte had just about given up when she had an idea. It was certainly worth a try, although she was very unsure how Charlie would react, and there was certainly more at risk for her. Charlotte decided that whenever Charlie would get in her face, she would respond by reaching out and hugging him.

"If you want to get that close to me, Charlie, then I think you just want a hug," Charlotte would say after giving Charlie a gentle hug.

"I don’t want a hug," Charlie would say. "Nobody gives me a hug. You touched me in my private parts. I’m going to tell my dad. You touched me in my private parts!"

"What am I going to do now?" Charlotte thought as Charlie ran to the back of the classroom.




Discussion/Study Questions

List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.

What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

What are the issues/problems in the case?


Additional Questions

What did Charlotte know about Charlie that would help her make decisions about an appropriate intervention for him?  

What are the ethical and professional boundaries of intervention with a student? How do you determine the balance between helping a child and protecting yourself?

What is your personal viewpoint about the source of Charlie’s problems? What are the best interventions to help him? What is the best approach in working with his father?

Do you think that this classroom is the appropriate LRE for Charlie?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case


Major Areas:

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

Basic classroom management theories, methods, and techniques for students with exceptional learning needs.

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.

Other Areas:

Social skills needed for education and functional living environments and effective instruction in the development of social skills.

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

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


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