On a beautiful October day in 2020, I answered a phone call from the school that would change my life. I really couldn’t understand all the words being said to me over the phone. I was just told to come to the school. Quickly.
I jumped in my car going as quickly as I could go. At the school, I found my neurodivergent nine-year-old son in the fetal position surrounded by teachers. When I was within arms reach, he tightly pulled me into an frantic hug. Coldly, the professionals separated me from my son, and I was escorted into into a conference room with people I didn’t know.
From the haze of what happened next, I heard the phrases “suicide attempt,” “had to be restrained,” and “not in reality.” The local Crisis Team had arrived and began asking intrusive questions in the presence of teachers, showing no regard for the discomfort any mother would be feeling in the moment.
The crisis team member did his assessment of my son and determined that he would not have to be hospitalized for the attempt. I went home and found a therapist who would start treating my child the next day. In the meantime, I was instructed to watch him closely and lock up medications and sharps.
I worried about what had caused the attempt, but I couldn’t get him to open up about exactly what had happened. So therapy, I thought, would be the best and safest place to start.
Trauma as “Behavior”
The therapist that we were referred to was an expert in school trauma. Her specialty was in play therapy and animal-assisted therapy. Our first visit was productive with a lot of enlightening and practical information. We had come up with a safety plan that my son had worked on with his therapist.
I thought that bringing this information to the school would be empowering. After all, these were the measures my son decided could keep him safe, and they were guided by the expertise of someone trained in school trauma. Instead of being enlightened, the school called a meeting to deal with his “behavior.”
I felt with the help of the therapist we had come up with an excellent plan. The team felt that my son no longer could function in a normal classroom due to his suicidal ideation and ADHD. Later, would come other diagnoses, too.
The school’s plan was to place my son in the resource classroom until Christmas and then reassess this plan after the holiday break. This particular classroom was very small and dark with no windows. In there, he wasn’t able to interact with kids from his own class. He was constantly followed by a teacher and not even allowed to go to the bathroom himself.
A Second Suicide Attempt
After being in the room for two weeks, he again attempted suicide. Because he was not allowed to interact with his friends or go to special classes, and because he had no personal freedom, school was unbearable.
Another IEP meeting was called. This time, I paid for his personal psychologist and his pediatrician to come. The psychologist strongly disagreed that he needed to be in the claustrophobic resource room all day, and that they should follow the plan that my son and his therapist had developed. The administrators said they were, “just reacting to him.”
I refused to sign the IEP, but it goes into effect in my state no matter what 5 days after the meeting. He was stuck in a room with 4 teachers and restrained on several occasions. He was followed into the stall and watched by a male teacher when he had to use the bathroom.
Enter Children’s Services
This happened in February, and Children’s Services were called to investigate because bruises were found all over his body. He had been thrown into his seat by the ABA therapist and told he was rude.
Children’s Services did not find this abusive at all. They said, “Isn’t this what schools should be doing?” I was told my son was “too smart,” and that was the problem.
The case was dropped.
Everything Was Escalating
From October to February, everything was escalating. The teachers were driving this escalation with their increasing attempts to tighten control. I was told I could talk to my son on the phone daily, then I was cut off by the principal because she said I was the one who escalated him.
Next, the principal cut off phone calls during the day to his therapist. Due to the fact that Children’s Services was called on the school, they were calling almost daily to report my family in an act of retaliation. Not only was my child suicidal, but he was isolated.
On several occasions, he was restrained with his hands behind his back. He was having an anxiety attack, and being restrained made it worse. He wanted to run. He was in fight or flight. He would fight as hard as he could because he needed air. To breathe during an anxiety attack is so important, and if you are not allowed to, you can’t calm down.
As soon as I would see him, I would say “breathe, breathe,” because he was holding his breath. I kept trying to educate the staff to no avail.
They Pulled Him from My Arms
On many occasions, my son couldn’t even go to school. We would sit outside on a bench.
As a parent, I had no control. My objections were ignored. We would cry together, holding each other tightly while we waited for the principal to tell us he must go in. Sometimes, he would throw up from the distress.
The separation was horrible. They would grab him from my arms, and then his screams would come. He would scream, and nobody cared at all. They were never worried about him. They found him irritating, ridiculous, full of himself. I found him lonely, isolated and depressed.
I asked, “Is isolating someone therapeutic for a depressed child with anxiety? I don’t think this is how we should treat people who suffer from depression or anxiety, especially not kids.”
The Emotional Toll of Restraint
The emotional toll has been great on my family and my child. My child had to leave his school and his siblings and go to another school where they did not find any of the behaviors that were found at the previous school. I find myself feeling guilty because even though I consulted with a lawyer and advocate, no one could help me with seclusion and restraint and his treatment.
During this last year, we also found out that the school was very toxic. During drop-off for his sibling, there was major amounts of emotional stonewalling. They would not even talk to him. He would say, “Hi,” but the adults would completely ignore him. Eventually he began to say, “ I’m here. You can’t wish me away.” I received no apology and the principal who used restraint and seclusion recently won an award.
There are several things that became clear to me. Teachers and ABA therapists have no education in the use of restraint and seclusion and the circumstances surrounding its use. Even PBIS training often recommends 6 to 12 feet away from a student in crisis, but 3 feet was the norm for my son. Escalation was the norm in every single instance.
Clearly, teachers are not mental health or trauma informed, and neither are school counselors. The role of the school counselors is to make schedules and complete classes on time management. It was clear that school counselors don’t have any idea about mental health in these circumstances, or that they didn’t care.
I was never given options until the behaviors became worse and staff had continued to escalate on a daily basis.
The “Behaviors” Didn’t Happen at Home
Interestingly enough, I never saw the same behaviors at home. Our home is one of acceptance. We don’t punish behaviors we have no control over, especially not anxiety attacks. We are a neurodiverse family, deep-thinking and introspective, that no one seems to understand in a small Southern town.
It’s kind of like being the biggest fish out of water, always trying to get air. The school wanted him to disappear into the ether, but his light still shines, just muted now with trauma’s hypervigilance.