It was finally the last week of classes at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and I was looking forward to a much-needed break from noise and chaos when I spotted the high school nurse storming toward me with one of my most difficult students, Ronald.
“Mrs. Morrison!” she shouted. “Ronald just had his meds switched and I need you to keep an eye on him during class for any changes in behavior.” She quickly let go of Ronald and scurried back to her office, where a long line of students awaited their morning dose of behavior medication, insulin shots, and respiratory therapy.
I knew Ronald’s behavior all too well. He was hyperactive, perpetually angry, and had a habit of getting out of his seat and yelling obscenities at any moment. I’d had a look at his IEP (Individual Education Program) when he joined my third period a month ago. This behavior was carefully noted, considered to be a part of his learning disability, signed off on by the principal, school psychologist, and parents–and therefore to be tolerated at school. This meant there was little I could do when he told a visiting parent the day before that he’d “like to stick my d*** in your a**.”
I also knew Ronald’s parents had filed a lawsuit against the district claiming discrimination and racism because the school counselor and two school psychologists had strongly urged them to put Ronald in a school for severely emotionally disturbed children (with expensive door-to-door transportation provided by the school district). Ten years ago, Ronald would have been sent to such a school despite his parents’ insistence that he be in a regular classroom; a generation ago, he would have been locked in a psychiatric ward. I was the third teacher he had been assigned to this semester.
As class sizes increase and as the population changes, many more children are coming from single-mother, chaotic families. More emotionally disturbed students are mainstreamed due to the high cost of special education, and since suspension and expulsion is rarely allowed, there is much greater use of psychiatric drugs to control students.
One in 13 US school children reportedly takes prescription psychiatric drugs: Zoloft, Effexor or Luvox for depression, social phobias, or anxiety; Ritalin or Adderall for ADD and ADHD, and mood stabilizers such as lithium to treat manic depression.
Students talk openly of the drugs they are on, drugs for which the long-term effects on developing brains are largely unknown. I find it ironic that drug-avoidance is an integral part of the mandated high school health curriculum when so many of our students are taking powerful drugs on the recommendation of school psychologists and therapists.
Ronald was moving with a peculiar, slow, flat-footed gait and looking a bit slack-jawed. I guided him to his seat as my class began to fill with 38 other students, including six special ed students. They all have Individual Education Programs because of their disabilities. As usual, the aide assigned to accompany these students as part of their mainstreaming is nowhere to be seen. It’s just as well; the majority of the aides are little better than the students they are supposed to monitor and help.
Lupe, one of my quiet, shy students, approached my desk just before the third-period bell. “Mrs. Morrison,” she says, “the counselor wants to put me in a therapy group this period and I don’t want to go. I already attend three different therapy groups during the week: anger management on Mondays and Wednesdays, family therapy on Thursdays and AlaTeen [AA for teenagers] on Fridays. I think that’s enough.”
I think so too, but we have three therapists assigned to our school and a fourth who works on an itinerant basis, and there is a lot of pressure to fill up these so-called therapy sessions. They all take place during class time.
As I’m taking roll–the school gets more money when more people attend, and we have to do it every period–I notice the principal in my doorway motioning me to come outside. “I need your iPads,” she says. “I’m going to lock them in the office with all the other ones where they’ll be safer. We’ve lost several already, keyboards too. You’re the only teacher who still has them in a classroom. Bring them over after school.”
I am glad to get the iPads out of my classroom. For two years, these $768 iPads have been sitting in the bottom two drawers of my filing cabinet, rarely used, mainly because my school did not have WiFi until two months ago, and it still doesn’t work well. The Peterson educational software that is supposed to help students with math and English–for $250 per iPad–was never installed even though Peterson was fully paid up front, to the tune of $6.4 million.
We got the iPads in the first place because of pressure from the school board. “Our children are not connected to the modern world,” members told us, none of whom had ever been a classroom teacher. “They are being left behind, missing out on the vital world of information and technology; they’re being set up to become the next generation of housekeepers and gardeners!” a particularly obnoxious school board member–a former La Raza activist–thundered during a speech justifying the school boards’ request to spend one billion dollars buying the over-priced devices.
I remembered a report from a neighboring school, a supposed “technology-centered learning academy” whose teachers had undergone intensive training on “iPad applications in the classroom” during the summer. Each student had been assigned an iPad so he could “take ownership and responsibility” for his own learning, have 24-hour access to technology and media, enhance his knowledge base and world experience, and research meaningful career paths. According to the superintendent, it was an issue of “social justice.”
The report said that by lunch on the day the iPads were handed out, students had managed to by-pass the encrypted filters the district had put on the iPads, and were freely accessing Facebook, YouTube, and porn sites. By the end of the week, the school hastily recalled the iPads only to discover a third of them were missing. The superintendent who had so strongly pushed to spend $1.3 billion for iPads because “high-quality educational opportunities are being denied to low-income students of color” soon resigned. He was replaced by an 82-year-old interim superintendent who had been accused of sexual harrassment, costing the district $93,000 in payments to the accuser.
Teens reportedly spend about nine hours in front of a screen each day outside of school time. They don’t need another screen to stare at in class; they need a teacher.
The school psychologist interrupts me just ten minutes later. “I know it’s the last week of school, she began, “but I need you for an emergency IEP meeting tomorrow morning before school. I know you don’t have this student, but I need a teacher in the meeting and I can’t ask the student’s teacher, Mr. F.”
I knew why she couldn’t ask Mr. F. Earlier in the year, he told a student that the micro-shorts she was wearing were inappropriate in class, let alone on school grounds around teenage boys. The student called her mother and the mother had marched into district headquarters yelling about a “male teacher looking at her daughter ‘down there’.” The district, as usual, sided with the parent and if it weren’t for tenure, Mr. F would have been fired. As it was, he was written up, placed on administrative leave, and later transferred to another school.
After school, I dutifully scoop up the iPads, including the chargers and keyboards, put them on a special cart designed to charge all the iPads at once, and head to the principal’s office to turn them in.
“You’ll most likely never see them again,” she tells me. “The district decided students should be using lap tops instead of iPads so they just bought $200 Google ChromeBooks for the entire student body. They’ve arrived and you’ve been assigned 20 for the next school year. Oh, and we’ve been told to ‘keep it quiet’ that the iPads are being locked away.” I pushed the charging cart and iPads to the back of a closet, disgusted at the tremendous amount of money wasted on them.
Despite several interruptions, period three–the class with Ronald in it–had gone well: We managed to read a selection from our textbook, had a round-robin discussion, and reviewed for a test. That was because Ronald had fallen fast asleep as soon as the third-period bell rang, his face plastered to his desk with a long string of drool seeping out of the side of his mouth.
After I had delivered the iPads, I knocked on the door of the nurse’s office. “How did Ronald do?” she asked. “He did great,” I told her. “His new meds seem to be working very well.”