The painful side of compassion emerges when we can’t help a student

[Editor’s note: In April, I posted a story about how Lincoln High School reduced its suspensions 85% by using a new method of school discipline. So many people were intrigued by how Lincoln High works that we thought you might be interested in these essays by Lincoln’s staff and students.]  

By Jim Sporleder
Principal, Lincoln High School

When you’re working with students that have high ACE scores, not every story is successful. You’re going to experience pain, just as you’re going to experience joy.

Stacy (not her real name) came to Lincoln High when she was a freshman. Because of a learning disability and her mental health, she was identified as a special education student. Somehow she missed acquiring that designation when she was in elementary and middle school. It’s unfortunate, because she had very special needs.

Stacy is a cutter. When she is upset, she cuts her wrists and arms. She’s been doing this for a long time: both arms have dozens of scars. Her parents swing between horrific verbal abuse and emotional neglect. They ignore her cutting or criticize her for trying to get attention.

Over her time at Lincoln, as Stacy began to form trusting relationships with more staff members, we began to see her become more secure. Her cutting diminished; her trips to the emergency room with the school district’s community crisis team also began to decrease. The crisis team comprises mental health professionals who are called in to assess whether a student is at risk for doing herself or himself harm. If they determine that a student is at risk, they will call police to transport the student to a hospital emergency room or, in the most serious cases, be transferred to a mental health facility.

I have to say, Stacy’s issues wore some people out. She is a clinger and wants attention. I think she created crises to create drama. Although most cutters try to hide their wounds, Stacy would make sure that we were aware when she was doing it. She never cut at school; only at home. For a while it seemed as if we were calling the crisis team once a week or at least every two weeks. But she showed improvement, and the calls became less frequent. And then she started to interact with older men, locally and on the Internet.

During her senior year, when Stacy turned 18, her parents asked her to leave their home. Lincoln’s intervention specialist, Brooke Bouchey worked with the county’s Department of Human Services to find housing for Stacy in an apartment complex for adults with mental health issues. Stacy was eligible for supervised living conditions, but said she wanted to live in an apartment on her own. Lori Finn, one of our teachers, took Stacy under her wing and monitored her as closely as she was able.

But Stacy was 18, and, because of her past, driven by a desperate need for adult affection, especially from older men. She found them locally. She invited one man, who was in his 50s, whom she had met at her church to come to school to meet her for lunch. When he appeared on campus, I asked him to leave and not return. The school resource officer, a member of the police department, was present and notified the department of the man’s name, so that if he returned he would be arrested. She hooked up with men in her apartment complex. We asked the police to investigate; since she was never restrained or physically abused, but just had sex with a group of men, there was nothing the police could do.

She found them on the Internet. Stacy made contact with a man about 45 miles away and, one Saturday, took a bus to Richland, WA, to meet him. He took Stacy into his basement. He told her that she was a bad girl and that she needed to be spanked.

On Monday, several of my staff noticed that she could hardly walk. They asked Stacy what had happened to her. Stacy told them that she was a bad person and had been whipped. They took her to the Health Center next door, where the nurse discovered that Stacy had been horribly beaten by a very sick individual. We called police; they arrested the man for assault.

These are the times when you feel like pulling your hair out as you fight the frustration of her poor decision-making, and deal with the fear that one of her decisions could end up in her death. There wasn’t much that we could do except to advise her on the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Her needs were stronger than our requests.

Stacy graduated in June. Over the summer, I haven’t heard how she’s doing. She had a job opportunity in a supervised environment for people who have mental health issues or who are mentally disabled. Her special education teacher Lori Finn is still in contact with her and is still trying to coach her.

Some would say that we did everything we could for Stacy, that she’s an adult now and should make her own decisions. Although this is a hard story to write and probably a hard story to read, I still say that the compassionate approach is the most effective, even when you feel that you are not successful. I know that my staff will not let a student go down unloved or uncared for. Students may make poor decisions, but they know that they are loved and they have a Lincoln family that they can trust.

Unfortunately for Stacy, she is currently going down the path that her ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) would have predicted. (ACEs refers to the CDC’s ACE Study, which showed a link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic illness, and social and emotional problems.) Her life might have turned out differently had she and her family received help when she was younger. As Teri Barila, one of the co-founders of the Children’s Resilience Initiative in town says, that’s why it takes a whole community, not just one or two high school teachers, to make sure kids have a good start in life.

At Lincoln, when a student fails or falls down, they fail in a climate of support, compassion, and forgiveness. This is why we can’t take students’ actions or words personally. It’s not about us; it’s about the students and developing those caring adult relationships with them. We as a staff encourage one another to continue to build and nurture our relationship with our students because we know the research shows this is the most effective approach. I‘m always reinforcing the relationship piece with the staff, because we know the research tells us that this is the strategy for helping students trump their ACEs and develop into the people they were intended to become.

We won’t ever give up.

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