5 Shocking Realities of Working With Disturbed Children
Back in elementary school, did you have that one troubled/violent kid who one day just ... disappeared? Maybe there was an incident -- the kid bit a teacher or stabbed somebody with a sharpened pencil -- and then they were just gone. Maybe you asked about it later and heard they'd been sent to a "special school."
Well, the worst of the worst horrifyingly violent kids -- usually ones who've suffered from some profound disability or have lived through terrible childhood trauma -- wind up at a residential school for the emotionally disturbed. They live there, and for the most part they're only there because they can't be around other kids or teachers. It's just too dangerous.
So what's it like inside one of these "special" schools? We talked to three staff members who wanted to remain anonymous, and they said ...
It's Worse Than You Think
The staffer we'll refer to as B worked in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed kids, and we'll offer up this anecdote to set the stage:
After a student had become violent to the point they had to restrain her arms, the student "slammed her face into the concrete floor to make her nose bleed. Then she tilted her head back until the blood pooled in her throat and mouth. Then, turning her head to a near-Exorcist degree, she launched several CC's of blood into the staff's face."
The student was 10 years old.
Kids spit the darndest things.
B's facility serves kids ages 7 to 21. His students had experienced rape, murder, abandonment -- and they responded to the world by punching its emissaries (i.e., teachers, police officers, social workers) in the face and, yes, even using their own blood as a weapon (but we'll have more about bodily fluids later).
Our second source, whom we'll call Q, works in a special school that deals with only low-functioning students who require "significant special attention" (read: the staff needs the ability to take punches). These are "kids who bang their heads on the wall to the point of unconsciousness or concussion, kids who are constantly violent," Q says. "At this point, curriculum goes out the window. We don't care about teaching them, we care about behavioral correction, because these kids are going to cost the government lots and lots of money forever, and if we can get the behavior under control we can substantially reduce that cost."
"OK, our goal for this semester is to get him from breaking whole arms, down to just fingers."
The students live at these schools, and they're never much farther than an arm's length away from a teacher or staff member. The tools of the trade are armored pads, moxie, and compliance drills: barking out a looping variety of inane requests, like "touch your nose," "touch your ears," "count to 10," etc. The goal is to distract the whirlwind of fury with compulsive obedience. Very low-functioning autistic children get drawn into patterns of behavior, and if you can get them stuck in a pattern of listening to you, maybe they'll listen when you ask them to stop with the punching.
Another source, M, worked with a kid who was in and out of a residential center. The district couldn't afford to keep him there (each kid costs $100,000 per year), so he wound up bouncing back to a public high school. "They'd send him back every couple of years, when he gave some staff member a concussion or bit an aid's finger to the bone."
Even Mike Tyson's fists weren't that expensive, on a per-punch basis.
You don't hire a teacher to deal with a kid like that -- he needs a bouncer. As M says, "I was big and I looked like I could take a punch, so they gave me the job." M had one student, a 17-year-old low-functioning autistic boy, who'd had more than 70 Workers' Comp claims processed against him in the decade or so he'd been with the district. That means they'd paid for medical care as a result of his actions on dozens of separate occasions. One gym teacher, a man in his late 40s, was crippled for life when the kid jumped on his back and grabbed him around the neck. If that doesn't sound like it could cripple you, try hanging a 150-pound weight from your neck and jumping off the bed of a truck.
(Cracked Legal Note: Please do not do this.)
Their Mere Existence Scares the Shit Out of People
If you read the above and feel that it's outrageous or disgusting, and if you're insisting there must be something else that can be done with these kids, well, go volunteer at one of these places and see if you come up with any ideas. Human civilization has been unable to thus far, and if you figure it out you've probably got a Nobel Prize waiting for you.
But most people just don't want to know about this. American society has a very specific image of the kind of mentally disabled people we're willing to look at without averting our eyes awkwardly.
And we're suckers for "emotionally disturbed" teenagers, as long as they're the sexy brooding kind.
But low-functioning handicapped kids can be incredibly violent, and some emotionally disturbed teens stab people with scissors, rather than crack one-liners. Don't worry -- no one with money likes thinking about it, either. Q's school, which charged $100,000 per head, got whatever equipment and training they wanted as long as the cash kept flowing and no one died.
"They're terrified of us, because when things go wrong in this business they go real damn wrong." At one point she was called to justify her "use of force" in taking a hammer away from a student who was using it to shatter his own hand. What she'd done was technically against the rules, because you're not supposed to move on a kid unless they're presenting a clear threat. Fortunately, her bosses were more interested in keeping "child allowed to shatter every bone in his damned hand" out of the newspaper than following the letter of the law.
The law is generally a few years behind on hammer-related crimes.
B had the opposite experience. He worked with inner-city youths, mainly there because their drug-addicted, violent parents weren't capable of parenting as a result of did you read the first half of this sentence? There wasn't much funding for B's program, and what came trickled in from the state on a per-student basis. So in order for the facility to stay operational, it was in its best interest to have these kids stay in the center as long as possible -- regardless of whether "living in a room with a bunch of other aggressive, confused teens" was the best way to treat their problems (note: it almost never is).
There's a Lot of Semen
Teenagers -- no matter what else is going on in their lives -- are completely obsessed with their, um, bits. It's the reason we have the play Romeo and Juliet, and also like 7 billion freaking people. When you confine a bunch of adolescents to what is functionally a colorful prison, they respond not unlike people in regular prison. As Q tells us: "My first week there I started in a classroom where the students were as old as I was -- 21. I was with a 21-year-old male who had a history of masturbating uncontrollably. Prior to this, my experience was with small children and temper tantrums. That man would try to stick his penis through his thighs to jack it, and we had to restrain him. On my third day, the bus dropped him off and the driver screamed, 'I don't know what to do! He's naked! He's naked!' Sure enough, there he was, naked. And covered in semen."
But hey, we've all been there. Right?
This was a universal experience among our sources. M says: "I'm a reasonably straight guy, but I'm pretty sure I've been ejaculated on just dozens and dozens of times. [The above-referenced autistic teenager] was, uh, gifted. He wore shorts sometimes in the summer, and those shorts were short enough that he could reach the head and ... yeah, right on your damn shoes or your ankle. I had to stop wearing sandals around him." Also, whenever he got the urge, the kid had a tendency to "slam his hand into the table or the wall and shout 'PENIS!' at the top of his lungs. We took the kids on outings into the real world on occasion, so this happened in more Targets and post offices than I can count."
And woe betides the staff member who happens to let a kid out of their sight for just a few minutes of their often 12-hour shift. As B says, "I was talking to the staff in the office and absent-mindedly picked up a snow globe sitting on the desk. 'Oh my god! He's touching it without gloves!' someone screamed. I quickly let go. Turns out it had been removed from a resident's vagina not five minutes earlier. A snow globe."
It's beginning to look a lot like...we don't feel entirely comfortable ending this sentence.
There's No Training, and the Rules Are Insane
So, how do you train people for a job like this? For two of our three sources, you don't. M started work with zero training at all: "The school had no budget for training when I started; it took six months for me to even get a course in physical restraint. They basically just said, 'This kid cracked the last guy's skull and sometimes he smears poop in his teeth. For the love of God don't get bit.'"
Really, what more employee orientation do you need?
When M was trained, it was with an eight-hour course called Crisis Prevention Intervention. CPI is legendarily shitty among the people who end up needing to use it. M described it as "karate if karate was designed by paranoid lawyers." Q described CPI as a "load of crap" and noted that her high-dollar facility used a more extensive week-long course with a physical and a written exam.
Compounding this lack of training are endless, contradictory rules that make no sense, until you realize they exist purely to keep the facility from being sued. Q had to face inquiries into her use of "force" every time she restrained one kid from beating on another or, say, destroying their own hand with a hammer. At the same time, there were locking padded rooms in her school, which is hugely illegal. But she got in trouble for not using them when shit went down and her students got violent.
Seriously, though, we think most teens would benefit from some time locked in a padded room.
How the hell do rules get passed that are so deviously out of sync with the realities of the situation? B says, "I never once saw an administrator at my school in three years. Our worlds don't collide." Hey, when we said nobody wants to think about these kids, we meant nobody.
So, since the training is pretty much a crapshoot, most of the learning in a gig like this occurs on the job from your co-workers. It's how you learn techniques like covering kids in bean bag chairs to make them less anxious. Both Q and M had students whose favorite thing was to sit on a mat or a bean bag chair and have another bean bag chair or mat placed on top of them. Then you sit on the top bean bag chair or mat and, well ... "It looks really weird," Q admits. "But he needs pressure sometimes to feel normal, and that works." Deep pressure is actually a fairly well known remedy for anxiety in some autistic people. The very fanciest places even have squeezing machines.
Like this, but for people and with less juice.
But sometimes weird-seeming policies are less about therapy and more about not adding any more problems to the pile. "We have one student who believes he's a security guard," Q says. "He thinks he's running the show, and whenever you kibosh those behaviors it creates drama. So we got him a fake walkie-talkie and created an imaginary position. Essentially, we're feeding the behavior, but it stops him from creating chaos around the building."
And that really is the running theme in all of these anecdotes -- they often never get anywhere close to what could be called an "education" with these kids. All of the time and energy is devoted to keeping everyone relatively safe. Yet ...
You Take Whatever Progress You Can Get
It's harsh to say these kids are imprisoned, but they're still aggressive adult and adult-sized human beings. They're not being punished, because none of this horrible shit is their fault. But the teachers and staff still have to be as on edge as if they're walking the skullfucker ward at a maximum security prison. It's an environment of paranoia and dread punctuated by coloring books and Kidz Bop albums.
So, more dread.
As Q says, "Once, I was alone with a 20-year-old autistic man who was 6-foot-2, about 230 pounds, as well as a younger student. He got up and started to charge at the younger student. I got in between them, so he tackled me to the ground and knocked me unconscious. When I came to they were pulling him off of me because he was biting my body. You can still see his teeth marks on my arms."
Look, we can't emphasize enough that the kids aren't really responsible for this. They're usually terrified and always freaking out. It's terribly sad, and it lends them something called hysterical strength, aka the adrenaline rush that lets mothers lift cars off their children. This is wonderful for people who can't use a jack properly and do all their auto work at mom's house, but it's disastrous for someone who is technically a white-collar educator.
"I have a Master's in education, with a minor in taking punches to the face."
Trying to train kids in that situation takes professionalism and the patience of a goddamned saint. As M tells us: "We had another kid in our class, nonverbal and generally the sweetest guy. He just made, like, adorable Cookie Monster noises and ate Cheetos. But he was 200 pounds, and I don't know how, but the dude was stacked. When he flipped out there was no one -- no six ones -- in the special-ed program who could fully restrain him. He flipped out once when my boss, this sweet little lady in her 60s, was trying to teach him to use a hand sign for 'please' before grabbing a new Cheeto. He didn't like when we pulled the bag back, and he went crazy, grabbing at it and eventually settling for my boss's arm. He had long nails and they dug into her and broke the skin. I couldn't pull him off. But she just sat there, calmly talking to him and trying to get him to give the sign for 'Cheeto' so she could unclench her hands and give him the bag. She won eventually. And she wound up with forearms like raw hamburger for her troubles."
M wasn't the only one with stories of horrific trauma turning into a blood-soaked-yet-positive learning experience. B, at the center for disturbed teens, once spent more than an hour restraining a young man who writhed and wrestled and threatened to "defile" B's pets until the kid finally broke down in the kind of physical and emotional exhaustion that only comes from trying earnestly to claw someone's goddamn eyes out.
Pro Tip: It's much easier to gouge eyes out.
"Then something incredible happened: he started to cry. He began talking about his biological mother and how his earliest memory was standing beside her as a 3-year-old when she was killed in a drive-by shooting. It was information no one, not even his psychiatrist, knew. We ended up covering more positive psychological ground with him in the 10 minutes that followed than we had in the previous two years with him."
And, if some Hollywood producer sees this article and decides to make a movie about these kids, you can bet that scene would make it in. They'd just leave out the months that came before and after -- the long days, the bruises, and the staff regularly trudging off to the restroom to wash semen out of their clothes.
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