Updated: Apr 16
For those of you who are fortunate enough to not know what an IEP is, I will explain it. Those who know what it is can start cringing now. For a parent, an IEP is the worst!
IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan. It is what the Special Education department at the school is all about. Kids who qualify for special education services have IEPs.
It is a lot of work to craft an IEP on all sides of it. The school has to do interviews and evaluations. There are people from all departments involved. An education plan is tentatively written and then a meeting happens with all of the school representatives and the parent.
For some kids, that’s the worst of it. The plan is in place and the child gets services based on that plan, whether it be a special class, one on one support, or sensory breaks for children who have a tough time socially.
I have spoken before about my son’s struggles at school. He has a lot of social and emotional difficulty at school. At home, he is sweet and intelligent, articulate and witty, a gifted artist, a great big brother, and a normal kid. At school, he is a complete stranger to me. I don’t know that kid at all.
He had a difficult transition to middle school this year. I’d found what I thought was a school with an art based curriculum. What we ended up with was a focused service school with a lot of unruly kids. There were so many fights at the beginning of the year and well into the school year, my son was re-traumatized.
My son had become so traumatized, that he was essentially completely shutting down as soon as he walked into the building. This translated into him being unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t know where he was, where he was supposed to be, or what he was supposed to be doing.
They would find him sitting outside of his classroom. Many times it wasn’t even his classroom. If he made it to class, he would fall asleep. Sometimes he would play music on his headphones and try to do some homework. All of the kids interrupting the teacher made it hard for him to concentrate.
He didn’t have the one on one support he’d had at the elementary school. He didn’t have the sensory breaks his IEP outlined him needing. His IEP clearly stated that he was incapable of giving more than 50% productivity. Trauma did this to my son. He has an IQ of 106. He’s not stupid. But without someone to show him what to do, he could only guess.
At the beginning of the third quarter, three or four weeks ago, his least favorite teacher switched the seating arrangement. My son did not know where to sit. He was afraid to ask where to sit, so he slumped against the wall.
The teacher yelled at him to get to his seat. He started to freeze into a trauma response. He can’t handle being yelled at. The teacher became frustrated and called the school nurse to reason with him. This woman had been harassing me by phone and text message for weeks, complaining about his behavior.
She came and sat next to him, which made him agitated because she was in his personal space. She treated him like a child and told him he needed to go to his seat. He couldn’t speak at this point. He told her to stop. She kept asking. He told her to fuck off and ran out of the room. He ran into a kid on the way. The nurse ran after him. He went into a flight response. He ran until he was cornered. When he had nowhere else to go, he started beating his head against a brick wall until he nearly passed out.
When I picked him up from school that day, he was so frightened, he was shaking. I had no idea what had happened. When we got home, he sat in my lap, my twelve year old boy sat in my lap. He started crying so hard I was frightened.
He cried for an hour. He was shaking so badly, I was terrified for him. I didn’t know what was going on with him. He couldn’t speak a word. He just sobbed and sobbed. He finally calmed down and I got him some ice cream. He went to bed and stayed there for a week. He was so depressed, he could barely eat.
Once I’d had him settled down, I checked my email. There was an angry email from the nurse explaining what had happened. It was all one paragraph with lots of capital letters. She wanted him to be punished. It could have been completely avoided if they’d just asked him why he wouldn’t get back to his seat: He didn’t know where it was. This was the last straw for me.
I responded to the email. I told the nurse and the rest of the team that they had pushed my son into a severe trauma response and punished him for it. I then emailed the school board and superintendent and demanded representatives to take over his case.
I refused to send him back to school. I went to agencies for support. I talked to the district supervisors. An IEP meeting was set. I was scared as hell. I wasn’t sure how I’d get through it. My auntie hadn’t been speaking to me up until this point. She had received us when we left my first husband. She’d been involved in getting the IEP for my son the first time around. I called her and made her speak to me.
I gathered all of my representatives to a meeting to determine my son’s educational fate. I prepared the following statement:
“Thank you all for joining this meeting today. I appreciate your time. I’d like to read something before we begin.
Parker, as you all know is struggling. He has been through a lot in his short life. When he was almost 3, we left his father and started over with nothing. Parker’s father was a frightening man and very abusive. We were living in a hotel in Colorado and ran away in the middle of the night.
We were all traumatized by this. My daughter Mina had night terrors. Parker did not speak for a year after we left. He struggled socially. In kindergarten, he was so frightened at school, he hid in a corner of the coat closet. His school was wonderful and he qualified for an IEP.
In the words of Peter Levine, author of many books about trauma, there is an extreme lack of tolerance for the emotional vulnerability that traumatized people experience. Children who have experienced trauma in the early development stages become so identified with helplessness and shame that they no longer have the resources to defend themselves when attacked or put under pressure.
From the popular book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: A child who has experienced trauma will show a pervasive pattern of dysregulation. They will have problems with attention and concentration. They will have difficulties getting along with themselves and others.
Their systems are overloaded with stress hormones. This leads to sleep disturbances, unexplained pain, and oversensitivity to touch or sound. Their focus and concentration can be so deteriorated, that it may lead them to self harming behaviors. These children believe they are defective and worthless.
Dr. Stephen Porges, the author of the Polyvagal Theory, mapped the vagus nerve that extends down the spine and through the organs of the body. He is an expert on trauma. He believes that educational institutions are not structured to make staff or students feel safe. They become places that trigger feelings of danger and threat. He states that neural circuits that support social behavior and emotional regulation are available only when the subject feels safe.
Feeling safe is also necessary to access higher brain structures that allow learning and social behavior regulation. The body has established defense mechanisms. We are all aware of the fight/fight strategy, but there is also immobilization and dissociation. The defense strategy the body chooses is not a voluntary decision.
Dr. Porges goes on to explain that individuals with a trauma history don’t like public places because noise bothers them. They have great difficulty extracting human voice from background activity. These subjects are hyperaware, constantly surveying their surroundings for danger. A person who is shut down will be unable to detect cues of safety.
I have done extensive research in order to understand the trauma that both myself and my children have been through. When I was initially considering this school for my children, I first reached out to the Special Education department on February 18th of 2021. I explained that my children had a history of trauma and asked if the department was capable of supporting their needs.
I provided a copy of Parker’s IEP and evaluation on February 25th. The department did not respond until I followed up on June 9th, 2021. They asked to be connected with Parker’s current rep. I introduced the 2 of them the very same day.
The school had every opportunity to alert me to the fact that they were untrained in supporting victims of trauma. They had every opportunity to share that they were not properly staffed to support the specific needs of my child, Parker.
Throughout the last few months, the school has singled out and punished my son for his coping mechanisms. His needs have not been met. He does not feel safe at school and he has severely regressed in his ability to handle social situations. He has essentially been shut down since the incident on Friday, February 4th.
This meeting must address Parker’s specific needs for one on one support, places where he can go to feel safe, accommodations for his self soothing behaviors, and ultimately ascertain whether the school is equipped to service his IEP at all.
Thank you for allowing me the chance to outline why we are here today.”
That meeting was awful. The school social worker was sullen and hostile. She lied about everything. But I caught her in her lie in front of the head of the district special education department, who was at that meeting. I proved that the school had not been properly tracking his progression at school. I’m incredibly organized. I have every text message and email from the entire school year readily available.
The district took over his case completely and took the school out of the equation. They decided to set him up for home-schooling until he could be placed in a suitable school. They determined that he should be re-evaluated, now that he had been re-traumatized at school.
Once the district took over, things got a whole lot less hostile. I now have a supportive team of people who are indignant at the treatment we received from the school. They have gone out of their way to accommodate Parker. I am grateful for this.
It took me a few weeks to put all of this together. We are beginning the re-evaluation process now. Many people would look at my boy and see a stubborn and sullen child who refused to learn. But that is just not what he is. My son was so severely traumatized, he lost the ability to function in a social situation.
Did I go too far? Absolutely not. This is what it took to get my son the support he needed. This is what I had to do to get someone to see what the school was doing. I am not the only parent who is upset with the school and its leaders. But I am certainly the most motivated one. I have held the school accountable and there will be changes that will make the experience better for other children at that school.
This is what it takes to advocate for children who have been traumatized. It is hard to do. That meeting was traumatic in many ways. I had to stand up for myself and my child. I had to use every resource to get him help. I had to take abuse to get others to see what was going on. It just shouldn’t be this way, but it is. I have to be strong enough to take this for my boy.
My son is still recovering. I am still working hard to get him where he needs to be. I will never stop until he can fend for himself. I pity the person who wrongs my children. They have to deal with me.