Emotional Abuse | The Socjournal

Here is a letter from a concerned worker in the Florida school system. Schools are supposed to be safe havens for our children, but the reality is they are not. Filled with violence and abuse, our schools beat us up and put us down. We often know it is going on, and we are often willing to change, but The System is designed to punish the willing and suppress change. Times are a changing though and what is now only a subterranean tremble of minor revision will shortly become a global and revolutionary earthquake of change.


I am a behavior specialist at a school in Florida. One of my duties is to work with kids who have emotional disturbances and who are in special day classes entitled “Supported Behavior.” We have two of our three classes that use highly negative point systems and for each “transgression” the child loses a point. The classroom assistants and the teachers (who leave most of this to the aide) yell out “AI” which indicates to the student that they are losing a point. If the student tries to explaining, they are given a “Double AI.” That no one knows what this even stands for, besides losing points, it seems especially shaming to have this yelled out in disrespectful and angry voice tones. To make matters worse, the students are punished for infractions that regular educations students do in the course of their day. For instance if a kid in these rooms, talks to another kid, even to ask the other kid for help, the aide screams out, “AI.” If, God forbid, a kid knocks his book off his desk and gets up to get it, then the assistant will scream or yell at them to get back into their seats and if they try to explain they were just getting a book, they will lose a point. The whole atmosphere is rigid and the aides voice tones are extremely disrespectful. It is more like the kids are in juvenile detention than in any kind of classroom.

These are children who have mostly been identified as emotionally disturbed. I am required to go get kids that the aides have triggered and try to explain to the why this is OK, but I can’t because it isn’t. Instead, I teach them strategies to ignore the disrespectful tones and comply so that they don’t get into any trouble. As it came to pass, we got a kid who transferred into our school, who was the product of severe child abuse, had been in numerous foster homes and had just been split up from his brother. He was seated right in front of the assistant, who watched his every move and kept taking points until he became so upset, he would flip his desk. This happened every single day. His social worker paid his classroom a visit and was so appalled by the conditions in the classroom, that she and our other specialists decided to call an IEP meeting to see if we could move him to another school because he was out of zone. I mentioned that the assistant was triggering him and then other people  mentioned that they had seen this as well. The teacher became very angry with us and said it was all untrue and that she felt we shouldn’t be attacking the assistant. She told us that her assistant told the kids that “If you do everything right, you won’t hear from me.” I told the teacher that only mentioning the negatives was not positive behavior support. She left in a huff.

Now she has refused to allow her students who were working with me, to come with me when I pick them up for social skills instruction. Yesterday, I felt so sad that when I reported this to our assistant principal, she told me she would tell the teacher she had to let the kids come with me. I was so upset I felt ill, but I am going back today. The kicker in this whole thing is that this has been going on for years, the principal has been notified countless times, but she does not respond in any kid of a meaningful way or at all for that matter.

Now I doubt myself. Am I overreacting or is this abusive? It makes me feel bad to enter the room where all the children are acting like robots for fear of losing a point and then getting in trouble at home. This is a 4/5 SB room and the other room, which is not as egregious, but uses the same system, is a 3/4. incidentally all the 4th graders go out for writing in regular ed and experience few problems.

I have been working with children’s behavior for around 25 years, both as a classroom teacher, a district level behavior specialist and now as a school based behavior specialist. I did this because this will be my last year and I wanted to work with kids, but this is a night mare.

Can you give me any advice? I intend to got to the ESE administration, but I have very little faith in them either.

I can’t give you much advice. I can say you’re not over reacting; the classroom you describe must be a horror show for the kids. I can also say go to the authorities, but often they won’t do anything anyway because it is too hard, because they believe “The System” works, because they have tried in the past without success, etc. If you want my advice, if you want to do something, help educate the parents. Write about what you’ve seen for this journal. We’ll change your name, and the location so you can’t be identified, but speak out. Parents need to know what is going on in their schools, and they need to be educated about the profound and long term consequences about this kind of abuse. You are passionate about it, you’re the perfect person to help make a change!

Thank you for your reply. I now have the “right to work” with a student from that room with whom I have a contract, because the principal insisted. The teacher is sending email to people about how I am “counseling” the child and that needs to be written into the IEP or I can’t do it. Fortunately, our staffing specialist alerted me to this maneuver and as I told the teacher and everyone else, I am teaching social skills, which I am supposed to do. I am thinking about filing a complaint with out district equity coordinator because this is causing me emotional distress and inhibits the my ability to do my job. I will continue to pursue relief for these kids, but it is exacting its toll. Yes, I am passionate that kids in SB need to have a supportive, structured environment, but it needs to be like any other classroom, except for the structure. I am not saying that children should not receive negative consequences for misbehavior, however, when they are being triggered by the teacher and the assistants, that is unacceptable.

Yesterday, I sat to observe a student in an SB class at my other school, who absolutely freaks out and tears up the place, from time to time. What sickened me was the teacher saying, “Watch this, when I give him this test, he is going to go off.” Instead of praising the child for enduring this without comment, he seemed disappointed and tried unsuccessfully to trigger him twice more, but the child endured. I happened to have been seated at the teacher’s desk and I saw three tests that had been given to this child. He got O% right on all of them. He is a severely learning disabled and language impaired student in the 5th grade, being taught entirely on grade level, when he actually reads at grade 2.7-3.0. The law in Florida says children must be exposed to grade level material, but using it entirely seems cruel and a severe blow to the self esteem of a child who is already struggling with family problems. By the way, when I analyzed his referrals, “We were giving a test” appeared on the majority. If I spent day in and day out having to fail all of the time, be embarrassed in front of my peers on a daily basis and given a sad home life, I might tear the place up also.

By all means, feel free to publish this. I will also be glad to answer questions for parents asked through you, especially about programs in Florida. I used to be a behavior analyst here and spent 12 years as a district level behavior specialist. This is my last year before retirement, so I wanted to work with kids again, so I am now school based and have two schools. It has not worked out that way, though one of my principals is determined to make some changes in the last case I mentioned. I also taught various forms of SB, EH or BD classes for thirteen years prior to becoming a district behavior specialist. I am currently writing a book for parents that helps them detect when abusive practices are occurring in the classroom. I will finish the book shortly after I retire.

WE’ll be happy to publish excerpts of that book when it becomes available!