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The Slippery Road

Because of a snow storm, Tom, a special education teacher, needs to get permission from Curtis’s foster mother to send him home early on the bus. After repeated calls, Tom finally makes arrangements to get Curtis to a center until his mother can be contacted. Both the principal and Curtis’s foster mother become upset and blame Tom for the situation. Tom begins to think that he is the only person advocating for Curtis.


"The roads are getting slick!" Mr. Owens warned as he closed the doors to his bus. Bus #14 slowly made its way out of the parking lot of Reynolds Elementary as Tom Crenshaw watched, with mounting concern for his eight-year-old student, Curtis Tapp. Mr. Owens’ bus was going to Curtis’s neighborhood, but Tom had not put Curtis on the bus because he had not been able to reach his foster mother. Snow was a common event in this sparsely populated, mountainous community. Most parents understood that they should watch for severe weather and make arrangements for their children’s early dismissal from school on snow days. Today was one of those days, with a wind chill factor of fifteen degrees below zero and snowdrifts of two to three feet already being reported on the back roads. Curtis, however, was new to this school and Tom did not know what kind of arrangements had been made for him.

The snow had started shortly after the children arrived at school that morning. It was a heavy snow, mixed with ice, so weather conditions made it necessary to dismiss the children early. Most of the parents had given Tom instructions about what to do on snow days, but nothing was in Curtis’s folder--no phone number to call in an emergency, no emergency contacts--nothing.

The uncertainty about where to send Curtis was especially troubling to Tom, given what he knew about his background. Curtis had been in Tom’s class for only a few months so they were just getting to know each other. An intelligent, African-American eight-year-old, Curtis had been placed in several foster homes since his natural mother had abandoned him three years ago. Mrs. Farber, his current foster mother, had taken Curtis in late December after his former foster parent decided that she could no longer handle Curtis and his eleven-year-old brother Mark, who was identified as emotionally disturbed.

In an informal conversation with Ms. Leary, Curtis’s previous teacher, Tom learned that the former foster parent, rather than working with Social Services to move Curtis and his brother to another setting in a planned and supportive way, simply didn’t come to pick him up from school one day. Ms. Leary revealed that Curtis was not aware that his foster mother was giving him up until he was abandoned at school. The boy was sent to a shelter until he was placed with the Farbers. Social Services had worked very hard to keep the boys together, but that had not been possible because of their troubling histories of acting out and aggressive behavior. Mark, who was known to have physically assaulted Curtis and others on several occasions, was sent to a residential treatment program and Curtis was placed with the Farbers. All of this information was just "hear say" of course, because nothing was documented in Curtis’s folder.

Tom really felt badly for Curtis. Although his records made frequent references to fighting, biting others, and using profanity, Tom had seen only a polite, well-mannered child who seemed to love being in the class. "Good-bye. See you tomorrow?" Curtis would call to Tom every afternoon in a cheerful and hopeful tone. Each time Tom heard him say that, he felt sad for the boy--how awful not to belong anywhere or to anyone.

Tom Crenshaw had been at Reynolds for two years. He had never really wanted to be a teacher. In fact, he had tried several occupations over the years including working in forestry, bartending, construction, and vacuum cleaner sales. None had been especially gratifying, so in search of a more interesting source of income, he applied for a teaching position. His first job was teaching high school students labeled as learning disabled. In reality, most of his students had behavior disorders and records of delinquency. In addition, his students were members of three different gangs, and the tension in his group was almost palpable. In spite of the problems he encountered in his first year of teaching, Tom began working toward obtaining certification in special education and agreed to teach a second year. He was given another class of students with learning disabilities, most of whom had behavioral concerns.

After two years, he transferred to an elementary school because he wanted to work with younger children, thinking more could be done for them at an earlier age. He was also promised a smaller class. Again, his LD class had many children with behavior disorders. Two years later, Tom transferred to his present school, an elementary school where he was assigned to teach children with behavior disorders. He had agreed somewhat reluctantly to take the position because he was assured he would have access to support from other teachers who could give him guidance. In practice, Tom was often called upon to deal with the "tough kids" because of his tall, strong, physique and his calm, gentle demeanor.

Reynolds Elementary was a small public school with about 250 students, 48 of whom were receiving special education services. Tom’s class had 17 students, ages eight through twelve, including 14 boys. As one of the few male teachers for this nearly all-male population, Tom felt he could make a positive impact in their lives.

By 1:00 p.m., Tom had called Curtis’s home four times, but there was no answer. After a thorough investigation of Curtis’s psychological files, Tom found a number for a former caseworker in Protective Services, Ms. Lorraine Hays. The buses had come at 1:30 p.m. to pick up those children whose parents had been contacted and were aware of the shortened school day. The other children would have to wait in the office until their parents could be contacted. Seeing no alternative, Tom called Ms. Hays.  In an effort to help Curtis, she promised, "I will try to locate Mrs. Farber for you. If necessary, I will pick Curtis up myself."

With a sigh of relief, Tom responded, "You have been very helpful, and I will wait until I hear from you." He informed the school secretary of the arrangements that had been made for Curtis with Protective Services and asked her to tell Mrs. Whitaker, the principal, when she returned to her office.

By 2:00 Tom had still not heard back from Ms. Hays, the caseworker. After the buses left, all the remaining students waited in the school office for their rides. Curtis squirmed a bit, but attempted to complete a drawing he had started in class. At 2:30 the phone finally rang.

"It’s for you, Mr. Crenshaw," said Mrs. Bertram as she handed the phone to Tom.

"Mr. Crenshaw, I have a bit of information for you, but I am afraid it is not what you might want to hear. Mrs. Farber left her job at the community college about 11 a.m. this morning and we have been unable to reach her. I’m sorry, but an emergency has come up here so I can’t come get Curtis either," responded Ms. Hays.

"I understand Ms. Hays, but what should I do?" asked Tom.

"There is a community resource center on 23rd Street where Curtis will be well taken care of until we can locate Mrs. Farber. I’ll call now and make the arrangements. Do you have someone who can take Curtis there?" asked Ms. Hays.

I'm sure the school security officer will be glad to take Curtis," responded Tom. "Thanks for your help."

As 3:00 approached, the snow was still falling, and no one had come for Curtis. Just as Tom was leaving to look for the security officer, the school principal entered the room.

"Why is this child still here? Where is his teacher?" Mrs. Whitaker demanded as she stood in the doorway.

"He’s my student, Mrs. Whitaker, and I was just on my way to find Officer Doyle." Then Tom told her the rest of the story.

"This should have been taken care of long before now, Mr. Crenshaw. I always stress to the faculty at the beginning of the year the importance of having explicit directions from every parent about what to do with their children on snow days! Why didn’t you do that?" Mrs. Whitaker said in a scolding voice. Tom started to explain that Curtis was new but Mrs. Whitaker did not wait for an answer as she marched back to her office and closed the door.

Feeling frustrated, Tom found Officer Doyle in the hallway and apprised him of the situation. The security officer explained to Tom that he was only authorized to take students to the closest emergency shelter. They both walked to the office to call Ms. Hays. Ms. Hays explained to Officer Doyle that the closest shelter had no facility for children and would not be a good place for Curtis.

"Yes, Ms. Hays, I understand, but I can only take Curtis where I am authorized to do so!" Officer Doyle reiterated. Ms. Hays tried to persuade Officer Doyle that he should do what was in the child’s best interest, but Officer Doyle became increasingly irritated and adamant about what he could and could not do for Curtis. After a rather heated conversation, Officer Doyle concluded, "Ms. Hays, I can take him only to the shelter nearest the school. Good-bye."

"Have I done something bad, Mr. Crenshaw? Am I going to jail?" asked Curtis fearfully as he stared up at the officer.

"No, Curtis, you are not in any trouble. We simply haven’t been able to get in touch with your mother so that we can send you home. This is Officer Doyle. He is going to take you to a center where your mother can pick you up later, okay?" explained Tom.

Curtis looked down at the ground as tears began to well up in his eyes. Tom hated sending this child with strangers to yet another strange place.

"Thanks, Officer Doyle. We’ll see you tomorrow if the snow lets up," said Tom as they bundled Curtis up and headed for the door. "Don’t worry, Curtis, I’m sure everything will be okay. Your mom is probably just having trouble getting here because of the snow." Curtis only nodded as he followed Officer Doyle out of the office.

As Tom watched Officer Doyle and Curtis walk to the parking lot, he wondered what impact this would have on Curtis. "I hope I did the right thing," Tom whispered to himself as he headed to his own car. "If I hurry, maybe I can still reach home before the roads become impassable," he thought as he started the engine.

Tom finally arrived home about 4:30 and checked his messages. There was a message from his principal, Mrs. Whitaker, giving him an update that Mrs. Farber had finally shown up at school around 4 p.m., just as Mrs. Whitaker was leaving. Mrs. Farber had stated that she had no idea school was to be let out early and had expected Curtis to be home by 3 p.m. on the bus as usual. When Curtis was not on the bus, she drove through the snowstorm all the way to school to pick him up, and was then informed that he had been sent to the community center. Mrs. Faber was furious and gave Mrs. Whitaker quite an earful. Tom could tell by the tone of Mrs. Whitaker’s voice that she was also furious and blamed him for the entire situation.

A week passed before Tom heard from Mrs. Farber. He explained that he had tried to call all morning to make arrangements for Curtis to be picked up, but no one had answered the phone.

"That’s impossible, my oldest son is always home. He would have picked up the phone," she stated angrily, implying Tom was not being truthful.

Tom felt angry, frustrated, and alone in the whole mess. "I wonder if I’ve made the right decision. I definitely didn’t have this sort of problem in the Forestry Service," Tom thought to himself. The more he thought about the whole thing, the angrier Tom became. "I guess I am the only one who seems to be thinking about the effect all this might have had on Curtis!" he concluded.


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. What do you think are the teacher’s, foster mother’s, school system’s, and the social service system’s responsibilities in this case?

2. Do you think Tom Crenshaw felt powerless in this situation? Why or why not?

3. What are some alternate points of view from the foster mother's position?

4. What do you think are the boundaries of the rights and responsibilities of teachers in a case like this?

5. Is Tom guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusions?


CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

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

Effect an exceptional condition may have on an individual’s life.

Characteristics and effects of the cultural and environmental milieu of the child and the family.


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