Teachers, social workers stretched too thin to support complex students — or stop bullying
(Content warning: discussions of OCD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and self-harm)
For many years, I worked as a full-time reporter covering cities and towns across the Bay Area. During those years, public schools were a regular part of my reporting. Between 1998 and 2009, I wrote often about Bay Area K-12 schools: funding, performance, pioneering programs and campuses, teacher pay and unions, and the struggle between public schools, charter schools and private schools. I saw how the long-term effects of California’s Prop. 13, coupled with privileged families’ decisions to put their kids in private schools, pulled money from public schools that desperately needed it.
When my daughter was born in 2009, my partner and I felt strongly about putting her in public school, and about the importance and promise of public education. And, for much of her early-grade education, she attended a public K-5 in San Francisco. But, over her years there, and particularly in fourth and fifth grades, we saw firsthand just how inadequate the system is in terms of meeting some students’ needs. Even the needs of a smart, white, blonde girl born to a family with an abundance of resources and a mom with a reasonable understanding of how public schools work.
During her last trimester of fifth grade, we pulled her out.
To explain why, let’s go back a few years to 2016 — to second grade, when my daughter developed OCD. She became afraid of “contamination,” mostly related to germs and plant toxins, and began washing her hands dozens of times a day. Every time she touched something she thought could make her sick, she’d wash her hands, using several pumps of soap. She developed red, scaly eczema on her hands from so much washing. We took her to her pediatrician, who recommended finding her a therapist at UCSF’s Langley Porter to help her get a handle on her OCD.
We found a great therapist who worked with her for a year, eventually retraining her brain not to be so afraid of contamination. The therapist also asked us to monitor her handwashing. That was possible at home, but at school — where she was from 8:40 in the morning to 6 in the evening, including the after-school program — we couldn’t supervise her.
We asked her teacher and after-school leaders to keep an eye on her as well. Both said they would do their best.
And yet, on the days when we asked our daughter how often she’d washed her hands at school that day, she would tell us it was probably 10+ times.
After a year, our therapist (who was a fellow in a year-long residency) moved on. He encouraged us to seek family therapy at a clinic here in San Francisco. Our daughter’s OCD was pretty mild at this point, but her general anxiety was worsening, and she was beginning to experience bullying. Her wonderful third-grade teacher was able to make adjustments so our daughter could opt out of nonessential activities that spiked her anxiety, but she wasn’t able to stop the bullying, especially since a lot of it was happening on the playground.
After a few months of working together, our family therapist recommended a neuropsychological assessment to see what was at the root of our daughter’s anxiety and other differences. We agreed, wanting to understand what was at the root of her anxieties and big emotions. It was a grueling process. She spent three days with a clinician she didn’t know, going through batteries of questionnaires and tests, refusing to participate in many of them — in part because of the same anxieties that had brought her to this point.
Ultimately, though, we got a pretty clear picture: not just anxiety but moderate depression with suicidal ideation. Executive function delays. Challenges in processing information quickly. Emotional dysregulation. A whole constellation of neurodevelopmental delays. Not quite enough to add up to autism in their eyes, but not far off, either.
They recommended a wide variety of supports for her: an individual therapist, occupational therapy, and in-school accommodations, including quiet places to work and do homework, a seat in the classroom where she could easily be “cued” by her teachers, advance warning about upcoming transitions, extra time on tests, and homework that could be completed within 10 to 15 minutes.
These recommendations came at the end of the third-grade year. We set our daughter up with a new therapist and occupational therapy, and I reached out to the school’s principal and social worker, saying we needed to talk about establishing an IEP for fourth grade and beyond. They agreed, but said we should wait until August to put our heads together.
Fourth grade: start of school
In August of 2018, I began reaching out again. But delay after delay ensued, and we didn’t wind up meeting for the first time until mid-October. Our daughter’s teacher missed the meeting because he’d gone home sick. We spent two hours with the rest of the team at school, advocating for her accommodations. The social worker wrote everything down and said she’d develop a plan based on them, and recommended we reconvene in six weeks.
It’s worth noting that many of our teachers, especially once we got to fourth and fifth grade, seemed like they couldn’t keep their heads above water. And our school’s social worker was impossibly busy. Every time we went to see her, she was handling at least two or three student crises at once.
Weeks passed and the plan remained unfinished. We (including her teacher) only received the social worker’s notes and recommendations the day before our check-in, six weeks later.
By this time, our daughter’s fourth-grade class was in chaos. She came home daily describing experiences being bullied — kids calling her ugly or fat or stupid, following her around and bothering her in class and during recess. A few of her classmates had behavioral challenges of their own; one routinely got into shouting matches with the teacher, and once threw a chair across the classroom.
In her artwork, our daughter was focusing more and more on feelings of depression and low self-worth, and talked about wanting to die.
Not only was she not receiving the academic and emotional supports she demonstrably needed, she didn’t feel safe in her classroom.
Fourth grade: January to May
After much back and forth in email with the school team, we agreed to meet again in January, 2019, to talk about why her supports weren’t in place. But my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher then abruptly quit, leaving at the end of January. We’d be starting over with a new teacher.
At that point, I again pressed for a formal IEP. The school social worker escalated my request to the school psychologist. But, after several weeks of my nudging her, she said that he didn’t think our daughter qualified for one because she was doing reasonably well academically.
We didn’t learn until more than a year later that this is not the standard for determining IEP status.
Instead, they offered us a 504 plan — defined as “a plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment.”
IEPs provide all that, plus specialized instruction and the possibility of an in-school aide. Not realizing we had any other options, we agreed to give it a try. Our 504 plan essentially codified all the accommodations that had been recommended almost a year earlier, and we hoped the fact that it was more official would mean it would be followed and enforced.
Our daughter had a few decent months with her replacement fourth-grade teacher, although the bullying and classroom disruptions continued. She kept busy at summer camp, but her depression and suicidal ideation worsened.
Fifth grade: start of school
At the start of the school year, her fifth-grade teacher said she had studied our daughter’s 504 plan and was on board with all of it. But by the end of the first trimester, we were beginning to receive reports that our daughter was misbehaving in class.
Some of the “misbehavior” included drawing in a notebook we encouraged her to draw in when she was having big feelings, which helps her self-soothe. (The teacher took the notebook away, prompting our daughter to have a massive meltdown.) On another day, our daughter spent class time crafting a miniature classroom for her stuffed sloth — an activity that could have been turned into something educational if the teacher hadn’t been stuck on the idea that her students needed to be doing the exact same things at the same time.
Some of our daughter’s behavior was a legitimate problem. Although the classroom had a rule that nobody could go into the cloakroom during class time, several kids continued to do so, including our daughter. She became one of a few students stealing snacks and small items from others.
During our meeting with the teacher to talk about all of this, our daughter revealed she had been keeping a notebook of things other kids had said and done to her in class.
One had repeatedly called her “ugly” and, at least once, called her a “dirty whore.”
We agreed to work with our daughter on the pilfering, and the teacher agreed to keep an eye on the bully situation.
Our daughter stopped taking other people’s snacks, but the bullying continued — and escalated. One of the girls in her class spread a rumor that our daughter had hit her. One of that girl’s friends retaliated by refusing to let our daughter into class one day, calling her ugly, and later trying to hit her with a large stick.
Our daughter responded by writing a well-researched opinion essay, one of the projects her class was working on, on how bullying contributes to depression, self-harm, and suicidal feelings. She wanted her teacher to read it to the class, but discussions of mental health issues made the teacher uncomfortable and she asked us to convince our daughter not to pursue the live reading. The teacher also asked us again to press our daughter into being more obedient and compliant in class.
I told her that it was clear that our daughter was feeling increasingly unsafe and unsupported at school, and that something more needed to happen. The social worker got involved, offering to hold a series of discussions between our daughter and her bullies aimed at healing the conflict. Only one of these meetings happened — involving the girl with the stick — but the girl acted disinterested and insincere.
The social worker told us that, knowing this girl, she wouldn’t have come to the meeting if she didn’t want to resolve things. But our daughter was left feeling like the process was a waste of time, and that things wouldn’t get better.
Around this time, I emailed a friend whose autistic daughter had recently graduated from high school in San Francisco. I told her how frustrated and overwhelmed I felt, how ineffective we’d been in convincing the school to follow our daughter’s accommodations or keep her safe from bullying. She sympathized with my feelings and suggested I ask again for an IEP. She also told me to create a timeline of everything that had happened so far. I did both.
Fifth grade: accusations continue, self-harm begins
Meanwhile, our daughter’s teacher sent a note accusing her of continuing to steal items from other students. She said nobody had hard evidence that this was happening, but she’d seen our daughter go into the cloakroom during class, and found a collection of snack wrappers in an empty desk near hers.
While the previous accusations had felt grounded in reality, this time it felt like the teacher was just looking for someone to blame. She said if our daughter could just stop stealing, the bullies would leave her alone.
Even if she had been stealing, she didn’t deserve abuse from her peers.
By this point, we were hearing from the school several times a week. Either her teachers were frustrated because she wasn’t participating in class or following directions, or she was in the social worker’s or principal’s office after a meltdown. Sometime in here she went to school with a series of slashes on one of her arms. She told us these were cat scratches, but told several of the adults at school that she was self-harming because the bully situation was out of control.
On another day, she and another girl went to a corner of their classroom, and our daughter began eating the beads out of a silica gel packet, claiming she planned to kill herself with them. (The beads are harmless).
She had tried to tell her teachers that she couldn’t handle the abuse she was suffering at school. We had tried to tell them the same. But nothing changed. And now she was trying other approaches to communicate how much distress she was in.
Her teacher told us, “I can talk to the bullies, but I can’t really make them change their behavior.”
The social worker apologized that she hadn’t been able to do anything to make it stop.
It was around this time that San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heather Knight began reporting on widespread bullying at Aptos Middle School, another public school in San Francisco. It appeared that the entire district was failing to adequately cope with the number of kids struggling with trauma, mental health, behavioral issues and bullying in its schools.
Social workers and teachers are stretched impossibly thin, and the administration seemed uninterested in sending support. Meanwhile, kids — including my kid — were being routinely abused and traumatized by their classmates, and learning that the grownups couldn’t adequately help them.
Last week of SFUSD
The week that turned out to be my daughter’s last week at her school was also one of its rockiest. On Monday afternoon we got a call from her teacher, saying our daughter was really upset and asking if we could come get her. It turns out that her teacher had organized a “community circle” to talk about the ongoing bullying, disruption and theft going on in the classroom.
But before that happened, one of our daughter’s main bullies overheard her talking quietly to herself and told her to “shut up.” Our daughter got really upset, and wound up cooling off with the social worker before her dad could go pick her up.
The next day, I got another call around lunchtime. The social worker told me that our daughter had brought an X-acto knife to school, pulled it out in class, and started making cuts on her arm. Another student witnessed this and quietly told the teacher, who quickly had the social worker pull her out of class.
As I left my office and headed toward the school, I realized: She was done. And I was done. I didn’t want her in that school anymore. She didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t feel safe sending her there. I would homeschool her if I had to. I really don’t have the temperament for homeschool, but there’s no way it would be worse than the stress and trauma she was enduring daily. I met with my daughter, the social worker and the principal for an hour.
When my daughter showed me her arm, it read the word “FAT” in large, red letters — some from the cuts, some from ink she’d used to complete the letters. I asked her why she wrote it.
She said, “That’s what people call me.”
At the end of the meeting, I told them I was going to keep her at home for a couple of days so we could get a break. Those days of rest were a blessing, the stress and fear dissolving a bit with sleep and downtime. And circumstances lined up just when we needed them: in those two days, we were offered an early spot in the small, private middle school our daughter liked most of the ones we had visited. She went back for one last day at her old school to say goodbye, and started at her new school the following week.
A week later, we were in lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though distance learning was a struggle all its own, our daughter was still noticeably calmer. She spent a lot of her final months of school adjusting to new teachers and new classmates, and napping a lot. She’d been through so much.
Switching schools won’t cure her mental health issues, and recovering from her experiences in public school may take years or decades. It’s an improvement, not a cure-all.
Thinking back on our experience, I’m left with many questions. If a smart, creative, curious kid like ours cannot learn to love learning in public school, who can? If a kid with relatively mild, but challenging, neurological and psychological issues can’t find support in public school, who can? What is happening to kids with bigger challenges, more behavioral issues, more mental health struggles? Kids with severe trauma at home, kids who are hungry, kids who are homeless, kids who are in foster programs? Especially now that public schools are stuck with distance learning for the foreseeable future?
Although we were often frustrated by our teachers and social worker, it was also clear that they were doing their best in a system designed to make it nearly impossible for them to succeed. We are lucky that we have the financial resources to get her into a safer place — even if it meant making the public schools slightly worse for the friends our daughter left behind.
Public schools are incredibly important. They are one of our most valuable public programs. At the same time, many are falling impossibly short of where they need to be. Instead of emerging strong, happy and with a love of learning, kids are often emerging disengaged and distrustful.
I don’t think that’s what anyone wants for our kids, or for the adults they will become.