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Train Wreck

As Cheryl Atkins reflects on the family circumstances of a former student, she wonders what she could have done to change the outcome. Did she do enough or did she do too much? What is a teacher's responsibility as far as her student's home life is concerned? Was she too involved?

 

As Cheryl Atkins steered her car past the curve and onto the last stretch of Jackson Highway, Oak Terrace Elementary came into view. She had followed the same route every school day for the past five years and, as amazing as it seemed even to her, she still got excited in anticipation of a new day teaching children. One of four African Americans teaching at Oak Terrace, Cheryl was known for being an enthusiastic and caring teacher.

Two years ago Cheryl had been invited to participate in a new project, co-teaching an inclusive, non-graded kindergarten through 2nd grade class. With a master's degree in behavior disorders, she had been the perfect choice for the project and had adapted well to the demands of team teaching multi-leveled classrooms and including children with various disabilities. She enjoyed co-teaching with Mary Allen, who had joined Oak Terrace three years ago as the learning disabilities resource teacher. Their personalities and teaching styles easily meshed and they had learned a lot from each other as a result of the experience.

Oak Terrace, considered a suburban school, was built five years ago to serve a new "upscale" housing development that had sprung up in a previously rural neighborhood.  Although the size and number of new housing developments feeding the school had multiplied, many rural children still attended.

As she neared the east entrance of the school, Cheryl glanced to the right. There, amid rusted-out cars and a few scraggly trees, sat a forlorn looking group of trailers. She could never pass by this place without thinking of Jake, a child who had been in her class for a little over a year, but who was now gone. "I sure hope he is all right," she thought to herself sadly.  She had doubts however and, as always, she wondered if there was something else she could have done to help him.

Jake had come to Cheryl and Mary's class two years ago as a kindergarten student. He needed a haircut, she remembered, but had not seemed too different from the other children in the class. After a few days, though, it became obvious to both teachers that this was Jake's first experience in a structured environment. "He is a whirlwind of activity," Cheryl used to say. Mary would remind her that his behavior was understandable for a young child with limited school experience. Cheryl and Mary hoped that, in time, Jake would begin to fit in with the other children in the class.

"Jake is the kid in our class that nobody likes," Cheryl told the guidance counselor after several weeks had passed. "He's constantly out of his seat, hitting other children, and yelling out. He's also very worldly for a five-year-old. Last week, we had to reprimand him for making sexually suggestive comments to a group of little girls. I think he has probably heard them used at home. He can't know what they mean."

"What are the parents like?" the counselor asked.

"Ah, yes," Cheryl had said, "let me tell you about the parents."

She had met Jake's dad and his new girlfriend Lisa during the first "Family Night" last month. Cheryl had been quite taken aback when they walked into the classroom that night. Both were dressed in tank tops and cut-off jeans, with matching tattoos, missing teeth, and long dirty hair. Dave smelled of cigarettes and beer but seemed genuinely interested in what his son was doing at school. He openly admitted to Mary and Cheryl that he had never made more than six dollars an hour. He wanted better for Jake and he was looking to Jake's teachers for help. "At least he cares about his child," the teachers agreed.

As the year progressed, Jake became special to Cheryl. As disruptive as he was in class, he had captured her heart and she desperately wanted him to succeed. She gradually became immersed in Jake's family life and even took frequent phone calls from his family enlisting her help with getting Jake to do things at home.

"It seems," she related to Mary one morning, "that I am the only one who can get Jake to brush his teeth. Would you believe that they asked me to come by this morning because Jake wouldn't get ready for school?"

"You didn't go, did you?" Mary had asked, rolling her eyes.

"I did," Cheryl admitted, "but only because I wanted to get some insight into Jake and his family. I really think that we should get our school social worker involved with this family."

She recounted her visit and how she felt as she drove up to the weedy and trash littered front yard. She was shocked at the condition of the rickety old trailer that was Jake's home. As small as it was, six people lived there in two bedrooms, a small living area, and a kitchen. Jake's grandmother and grandfather shared one of the bedrooms, and Dave, Lisa, Jake, and Lisa's younger son, Jason, shared the other.

"Now I know where Jake might get some of his sexual information," Cheryl said after describing the family's sleeping arrangements.

Later that week, Cheryl and Mary met with Joan Green, the school social worker, to discuss Jake. "They don't seem to have any idea about hygiene, how to discipline Jake, or how to help him with homework," Cheryl said after she told Joan about her visit to Jake's home.

"No wonder he acts like he does," Mary added.

"Being poor isn't a crime, ladies," Joan reminded them. "If you don't see any physical signs of abuse or neglect, I'm afraid there is nothing I can do. You don't see bruises, do you?"

"We really don't see physical marks but we do have suspicions," Cheryl responded.

"Jake gets so upset at the suggestion of a bad report going home to his Dad that we stopped using that option to manage his behavior," Mary added.

"Try not to get too emotionally involved with this child," Joan had cautioned. "There are some families that need more assistance than we can provide." Although Joan's intentions were good, this was not advice that Cheryl wanted to hear. "I'll keep it in mind," she replied as she stood to leave.

The school year ended in June with Jake making slow but steady progress in academic areas as well as social skills. Cheryl was encouraged by the effort Jake's family appeared to be making on his behalf. "We have to give them credit," Cheryl said to Mary on the last day before summer vacation. "At least they try to help Jake."

When school reconvened in August, it seemed Jake's family situation was deteriorating. Jake's dad was gradually relinquishing all responsibility for discipline to Lisa. However, Lisa was pregnant and apparently less patient with Jake than before. Jake was beginning to act out more at school and home and Cheryl was getting a lot of phone calls from Lisa. "This has gotten way out of hand," Cheryl admitted to Mary in early September. "Lisa claims that Jake kicked her in the stomach yesterday and that he hits her all the time."

"What do you think we should do?" Mary asked. Both seemed stumped for an answer.

"Watching this family is like watching a train wreck in slow motion," Cheryl muttered to herself.

After Jake's baby sister was born, the situation became more intense. The baby was born with a facial deformity, which Lisa blamed on the kick Jake had given her to the stomach. To complicate matters further, over the summer Jake's real mother, Tammy, moved back into the area. Legally, Tammy had custody of Jake, but being even less stable and responsible than Dave, she had not been willing or able to provide a home for him. Although her visits with Jake were haphazard and inconsistent, they were having an extremely negative impact on his behavior. Tammy was apparently telling Jake that he didn't have to obey Lisa and he was becoming even more disrespectful and defiant. Lisa had admitted to some extreme punishment regimes, which were alarming to the two teachers. "Standing in the yard picking up cigarette butts for three hours doesn't sound like an appropriate punishment for a six-year-old," Cheryl had suggested to Lisa on the phone during a particularly stressful conversation.

Then, one afternoon, Jake's aunt called Cheryl to describe a severe spanking, which she had witnessed Lisa giving Jake. "Can't you call HRS?" the aunt had asked. Cheryl told the aunt that she couldn't call HRS because she had not witnessed the punishment nor had she seen any bruises on Jake. "If you saw it, then you should call," Cheryl urged. The aunt, however, was hesitant, fearing repercussions from the family.

Finally, Jake's situation came to a head. Lisa accused him of molesting Jason, her three-year-old, and demanded that he be sent to live with his mother. Cheryl suspected that Lisa had embellished the story to rid herself of a problem. Dave put up no argument and Jake went to live with Tammy. He transferred to another school and no one from Oak Terrace had heard anything from or about him or his family since. The teachers were devastated to have lost this child, knowing what his future would be like.

"Jake will probably turn up in one of the classrooms for severely emotionally disturbed kids before long," Cheryl remarked to Mary when they learned of his sad fate.

As Cheryl turned into the staff parking lot at Oak Terrace she tried to put Jake out of her mind. "At least he is with his mother," she thought, but the notion of Jake in Tammy's care gave her no comfort.

"You went the extra mile for him," Mary had told her a hundred times since Jake left. "It's like the social worker said; some families need more help than we can provide."

Cheryl knew that it was not in her power to fix all of Jake's problems but she had hoped she could at least make a dent. She remembered the meeting she and Mary had set up with the social worker so many months ago. "Joan warned me not to get too emotionally involved with this family. Did I do that?" she asked herself as she gathered up her things and headed for the classroom.

 

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. How does the description of Jake's parents affect your perception of them and their actions regarding the child?
  2. Is it possible for different individuals to perceive the same behavior in different ways? Why?
  3. Was the social worker's position on Jake's situation justified? List some factors that might have contributed to her          position.
  4. Did Cheryl go too far in her attempt to help Jake's family?
  5. Do you think Cheryl's predictions regarding Jake's future placement in a program for students with behavior disorders are valid?

CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed In The Case 

Major Areas:

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

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.).

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

Other Areas:

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.

 

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