When Communities Fail Schools: The Link Between Addiction and Emotional Disturbance in Our Education System [Opinion]

It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’m slumped in a rolling office chair with sticky wheels in a cramped beige room, pretending that I’m totally OK with the fine mist of spit raining down on my face, caused by sound effects from the little boy with wild hair who is pointing a plastic toy at me and pretending with all his little wild heart that the toy is spraying fire and burning me to death.

It’s been a long week, and I’m trying to gauge whether this is a game that he will get sick of, or whether I should find some kind of barrier to prevent the barrage of germs from entering my system. Until I decide, I don’t move – he can smell doubt, and will pounce on it. This boy has given me more bumps and bruises than any other student I’ve had as a special education teacher, including a fat lip from some flying school supplies. He makes every working day for me 33 times more difficult. He says “no” to everything, even what seem like simple requests, like sitting in his chair. He screams at ear-piercing decibels. He wets himself multiple times a day, often on purpose.

And I asked for this job.

Vermont, where I live and work, has identified 15.4 percent of its total special education population as having emotional disturbances — nearly three times the national rate of 6.3 percent. Shortly before those numbers surfaced, there was the startling revelation, in an article illustrated with a nostalgic image of a woodsman shooting up, that Vermont has an opiate problem. Though the connection may be surprising, the high rate of emotional disturbance (ED) in the special education population is absolutely related to the state’s drug problem: It is one of the few disabilities that a child is not typically born with, but acquires due to environmental circumstance.

While genetics and poor prenatal practices may certainly contribute to a child’s development of ED, this issue is really cultivated, like a fine row of Vermont apple trees, by the inconsistent discipline, neglect of basic needs, abuse, and trauma that often accompany drug addiction. When children are not cared for by the adults in their lives, or when there is no guarantee of safety at home, their brains can’t rest, opting instead to live on a high-speed adrenaline highway because they are constantly on alert for danger. And when there’s no room to rest, there’s no room to learn.

Many agree that Vermont’s high rates of ED are not necessarily the result of more trauma, drug use, or poverty than other states; instead, the incidence of ED may be attributable to our inability to identify those particular problems in our communities. Having previously taught in a residential treatment center just outside of Portland, Oregon, where methadone use was the topic on people’s tongues, I know it’s very likely that every state has a similar form of heartbreak in its communities, whether it has the resources to identify and treat the problem or not.

And for every community with heartbreak, trauma, abuse, and substance use, there is a school ready to educate and serve the children who suffer from it. Schools are often microcosms for their overarching communities But in schools, instead of “trauma,” we call these various forms of heartbreak “emotional disturbance.” Likewise, instead of “poor” we say that students qualify for free or reduced lunch; we use language that acknowledges the needs of the community with precision and without stigmatization.

Teachers see which parents make time for parent-teacher conferences, and which can’t manage to attend; which families donate boxes of tissues or make cupcakes, and which don’t have time to check the homework folder. And we teach the kids who come in with designer outfits just the same as those who are wearing the same clothes as the day before, and provide them all with the support they aren’t necessarily receiving at home or from the community at large.

These are perhaps the same reasons you’ve already heard about why teachers have it so hard. I won’t say I wouldn’t accept a little applause, but that’s not exactly my aim. The point is that because there has been little to no recognition of the disintegration of communities, schools — as their mirror and magnifier — have been charged with more than just educating children, but with actually holding communities together. As a 2014 report submitted to the Vermont legislature by the Secretary of Education and Secretary of Human Services stated, “The ‘job’ of our public schools has changed dramatically over the years,” in part because of the services and support schools are now expected to provide.

With the rise and fall of No Child Left Behind, schools across the country have been pressured somehow to wrestle every student across the achievement finish line. There are innumerable education blogs, newspaper columns, and trendy modern books about “flipping your classroom” in order to accommodate every child, regardless of need, but there’s been no discussion of how to rebuild our sense of community. We have lost our ability to support one another, or even to forge healthy, healing connections with the human beings around us. You can go looking for human connection, but it is not readily granted. Instead, individuals — including children — still must seek this out. Not very heartening.

A compelling review of evidence (with an accompanying video) has concluded that the antidote to addiction is not straight-up sobriety, but rather human connection. One thing you can say about Vermont is that small-town communities are still very much alive — to a point. If a neighbor’s house goes down in flames, the entire town responds with warm coats, clothes, offers of shelter, and endless cheer-up notes. If a friend is diagnosed with cancer, she won’t have to cook for a year, because the town will keep the fridge stocked.

But when a family is stuck in a vicious cycle of mental illness, substance abuse, and poverty, the community looks away. And which disaster is greater? A house fire is absolutely, a one-hundred-percent tragic event — a one-time event — but mental illness is lifelong and generational. Those who are hardest to love are the ones who need love the most — they will not survive without it. You wouldn’t punish a person for having cancer. When will we stock the fridge or send loving notes to those who are doing battle with their own brains?

That’s why I became a special education teacher, and why I sit calmly as my student spits on me — to offer that unwavering support to the ones who need it most, and to help form the community that is so desperately needed. Today is a bad day, but my student has had more bad days than he can count. When he’s done, or I’ve sufficiently distracted him from destroying me, we’ll talk and sing and clean up the room, and at some point, he’ll be ready to join his friends in class and work on counting, or whatever else he was too traumatized to learn, again. But first he needs someone to know he exists. And that’s my job.

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