In spite of “what wasn’t supposed to happen…”

It was the first week of the new school year at a new school with a new set of students and staff. Ms. Sarah, an instructional assistant, and I were responsible for a diverse group of 4th-6th grade boys. Despite their differences, these boys shared similar school experiences of repeated frustration and failure and had all landed at this therapeutic day school as a last resort. First on my agenda: creating a safe space where belonging was possible for every student. I had no idea how great of a challenge that would turn out to be.

I was newbie on the block, but Ms. Sarah was a long-time, respected member of the school community. She was a petite gal, filled with creativity and enthusiasm for teaching and a heart for exceptional kids. Because the students showed an interest in soccer, I let her take the lead in planning a soccer unit for PE. We thought this might be a great way to build community while also providing opportunities to develop social skills.

Day 1 of the soccer unit did not go as planned. Upon arriving at the soccer field, Ms. Sarah had the class line up along the fence and began to provide instructions for the activity. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, Timmy had placed Ms. Sarah in a chokehold. Timmy was at least twice Sarah’s size and it took me and the assistance of another staff member to pull Timmy away. Meanwhile, the rest of the class was in complete chaos: responding with fear and confusion, screaming, and running for cover. The day ended in tears for nearly all who were involved. Did I mention that Day 1 did not go as planned?

I just wanted to crawl into a deep, dark hole. This was not supposed to happen.  But there were parents to call and some sort of plan had to be created to ensure safety that next day. Calling Timmy’s mom was the last thing I wanted to do. No parent could ever want to hear that kind of news, but I knew I couldn’t sugarcoat what happened either. She apologized for Timmy’s behavior and said that she would contact his doctor. She wanted to know if anyone had been hurt, all the while apologizing profusely. This wasn’t her fault. Sadly, I knew it wasn’t the first time she’d received this kind of call. I also knew that she’d experienced firsthand the very behaviors we were discussing. Deep down, I felt like I had failed as her son’s teacher. This wasn’t supposed to happen at school. Still without a clear plan for the next day, I told her I would call back later. Meanwhile, Ms. Sarah was off to the emergency room….

I made more calls to every parent, relaying what had happened, how we responded to their child’s need in the moment, and what their child might need to continue to process what had happened. Nearly every parent wanted to know who it was and why it happened. I was careful to keep confidentiality, but I knew that parents would soon discover who it was as their children began to talk about their experience. Sam’s mom was especially concerned because Sam was already so anxious about school. She said that he would likely need some separation from the student for a while. I assured each parent that I would call back later when I had more information about a plan for the next day. Ugh- more guilt. This wasn’t how I had planned to build relationships with parents.

Although Timmy’s behavior that day was intense and scary, I knew it was not what he intended and that he was just as anxious (if not more) than the rest of us. Now what? How could I provide a safe environment for my students and staff while also caring for Timmy’s needs?

I sought out my supervisor sure that she would have the answer I needed. I relayed what happened and the concern about having Timmy in the classroom the next day. She said we didn’t have a lot of options and that we needed to inform Timmy’s school district before making any major changes to his program. The temporary plan, at least for the next day, was for Timmy to participate in his program in the hallway with the school behavior specialist. My supervisor agreed to contact the school district representative to provide an update and to inform her that a change to the IEP was likely needed. I returned calls to parents letting them know the plan for the next day. Timmy’s mom was supportive and said that she would talk to Timmy about the plan so he would know what to expect. This mom’s response was so amazing. I couldn’t believe how supportive and understanding she was of the whole situation.

The next day was rough…. Ms. Sarah stayed home to recover, so I had a substitute. All of the students wanted to know where she was and why she was gone. Sam asked if she had died. Danny kept drawing pictures of war scenes and made motions like he was shooting a gun toward the hallway where Timmy was. Everyone was anxious. I did my best to maintain structure and normalcy in the classroom, but needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of academic instruction going on that day. That wasn’t what the students needed. They needed time to process. Timmy was thankful to have some space away from his peers.

My supervisor relayed her conversation with the school district representative. There would be an IEP meeting at the end of the week. Timmy’s placement would be discussed at the meeting because the district representative wasn’t sure that Timmy’s needs were being adequately met. I was tasked with synthesizing all of the data and contacting the parents about the meeting. So in the midst of trying to repair what was my left of my classroom community, I was to prepare for a fight with the district. I knew that Timmy’s parents spent over a year advocating for his placement and that their relationship with the district was a sensitive one. In the midst of all of the current challenges, I couldn’t even fathom their dread going into this meeting.

The IEP meeting day went better than expected. Timmy’s parents were able to arrange for his doctor to participate in the meeting. It was helpful to have the medical perspective around what was happening and more information about the treatment plan. I reviewed the behavioral data and updated the team on the interventions that had been attempted. The team came to the consensus that Timmy needed a 1:1 aide to support his participation in his program. The plan was for him to continue to work 1:1 in a separate space with a plan to increase his time with peers as his regulation improved.

Of course the story doesn’t end there. Despite the complexity of this situation and all of the perspectives involved, collaboration was possible. I’m glad I didn’t crawl into that deep, dark hole because I would have missed the start of a beautiful community.

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