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Leslie Sowers
28 Jun 1998

Photographs by Ben DeSoto
Houston Chronicle

HOSTILE graffiti smolder on the walls of the narrow, confining timeout booth at ABC-East, depressing artifacts of frustration and rage. Heavy locks on the heavy door leave little doubt about the emotional force they must withstand.

It's a mechanism of control, raw and ugly, that kicks a visitor in the gut. This is a school, after all, not a prison or a psychiatric ward.

Only a visceral trust inspired by principal Faye Wells holds judgment at bay. When she insists calmly that these are not bad kids, you believe her. It's soon evident that, as she says, her staff makes a total commitment to the emotionally disturbed students it serves.

The 100-plus students in this Harris County program desperately need total commitment. They have exhausted programs for emotional disabilities in their home districts. If they don't make it here, the next stop may be a residential program or the juvenile-justice system. Their mental health issues have so affected their behavior and attitude that only a dramatic change will get them back to their home schools.

Wells and her staff work toward helping their students make that breakthrough. This isn't a boot camp or correctional school for delinquents. But the negative emotional patterns in these children run deep and resist change. One of the teachers said she feels like a nun - doing God's work.

I prefer you call me Ms. Griffith

"We live and die by the choices we make," said Twana Griffith, a math teacher who wants to help her students learn to make good choices.

It's challenging work. In a class of six to eight students at widely different levels - often several grades behind where they should be - she must individualize every lesson.

Griffith likes to keep math lively. Chalkboard Challenges help.

On this day, Griffith makes several attempts to engage Josh Rodgers, 17, one of her best students. He balks at going to the board. She offers five bonus points for correct answers. Rodgers lobbies for 1,000.

"No, five for each problem," she insists.

"That's not going to help me. We did not have these problems."

She offers him the alternative of working at his desk. He then loses five points because he's come to class without paper, a standing rule. The tension is building. Rodgers' face becomes a blank. His silence carries an ominous load. One more exchange and Rodgers bolts from his seat. Using a wall-phone in the classroom, Griffith calls for team backup, a common practice. Sometimes a neutral person can help de-escalate the situation.

Within seconds, aide Michael Holcombe is escorting a bristling Rodgers to the timeout booth. The consequences for Rodgers' noncompliance are immediate. There's no discussion, negotiation or manipulation, and little protest.

"They need consistency in their lives," Griffith says. "We have to be on top of it all the time."

At ABC, students may seem interested and engaged one minute and lose control of their emotions the next. The incident with Rodgers arises, escalates and is handled in no more than five minutes. Students may be frustrated with themselves, or they may act out impulsively. They may attempt to attack other students or teachers, throw desks, damage property or curse the teacher.

"When they say, `You B-I-T-C-H,' " Griffith said, "I smile and say, `That's not who I am. I prefer you call me Ms. Griffith.' " Her empathy for their disabilities allows her to release each incident and start each day fresh, she says. She doesn't take their behavior personally or hold a grudge.

"It's not about Ms. Griffith," she said. "You just happen to be there. But, if no matter what you do, Ms. Griffith is still here with a smile on her face, that can be therapy in itself."

Facing the consequences
In the early 1980s, the Harris County Department of Education created ABC-East (ABC stands for Adaptive Behavior Center) in Galena Park and ABC-West for students whose behavior was too extreme for their school districts to handle. The two schools, which also house programs for autistic children, serve ages 5-21 in a year-round program. Due to increased enrollment, both will move to larger campuses next year.

The point-and-level system at ABC differs little in essence from behavior-intervention programs the student has already experienced. All rest on the principle of reinforcing positive behavior and imposing consequences for negative behavior. As students master self-control, they advance through levels with an increasing number of privileges. At Level 5, they return to their home schools - the program's goal.

Jointly funded by the districts and the county, ABC does offer smaller classes, a higher level of teacher training, a more intensive therapeutic component and more elaborate positive reinforcers.

Most importantly, ABC has been willing to create a safety system that allows these emotionally volatile students to remain in a school setting.

Though students are searched each morning with a metal detector, and their book bags are inspected, Wells said weapons are rarely found. These students, she said, are not the type to plan antisocial behavior. If they attack, it is usually because their emotions get the better of them. The school has had few injuries because staff members watch for signs of emotional buildup and intervenes rapidly before any injury occurs.

The intervention measures are not punitive, but designed to allow the students time to get their emotions under control before they act in a way they'll regret.

The grim timeout booths allow students a safe place to cool down when other methods fail to de-escalate a conflict or reduce inappropriate behavior. When necessary for school safety, the booths are locked. Students go into timeout with a task to complete in 15 minutes; if they are still disruptive, the teacher has an option of extending the timeout another 15 minutes.

Usually students settle down quickly and complete the task. If emotions remain aroused, Wells said it often signals a need to talk things out with a counselor. Timeout ends at the end of a class period, even if the timeout task is incomplete.

As a safety precaution, students must remove their shoes and belts, empty their pockets and submit to an external search before entering.

The staff is trained in several methods of therapeutic restraint, which all must be prepared to use at any point necessary, including off-campus field trips. The methods are designed to be noninjurious to both staff and students. For younger children, a basket hold is used. In this, the staff member contains the child by folding the child's arms to his their chest and clasping him them from behind. For older students, four staff members are required, and each secures one of the child's limbs. The child is tipped slightly forward in an off-balance position that immobilizes her.

Sometimes students ask for timeout on their own to cool down, or they may voluntarily assume a face-down prone position on the floor to regain emotional control.

"We are asking students to face consequences they probably have not faced before," Wells said. "We have had to restrain some students again and again before they understand we aren't going to go away or kick them out. On the other hand, we are not going to allow them to be belligerent or hurt themselves or others."

The school keeps incident reports on timeouts and restraints, and Wells said as the program begins to work for a student, these incidents decrease. Wells said Rodgers' behavior in math class is more typical of how he entered the program two years ago than his current level of control.

Students enter the program with a lot of anger, often understandable in the context of their lives. The staff must teach them appropriate ways to handle their anger.

The ABC staff is prepared to work with a student for 12 to 18 months before seeing change, Wells said.

"We hope to see some turnaround by the second year," she said. "When it goes further, it's very discouraging."
As students calm down and begin to make better choices, Wells said their academic progress accelerates and they can participate in the positive components of the program. These include bimonthly field trips, movies and a trading cabinet stocked with items they can buy with bonus points for good behavior.

Many students improve up and regress before stabilizing at a higher level, she said. ABC-East statistics indicate about 60 percent make it back to their home schools, but a quarter of those return to ABC at some point.

Some drop out of the program; others move or are hospitalized. Others commit criminal offenses and end up in the juvenile justice system.

Making the grade
Behavior problems get priority at ABC, but academics are critical as well. Teachers must know how to use various learning strategies for students with language and math delays. They must be able to juggle behavior management with instruction. Margaret James is a first-year teacher at ABC-East, but with 14 years of teaching experience, she seems undaunted by her students. When they interrupt, she stops them. When they pester one another, she sits down between them. When they put their heads on their desks, she tells them they may not sleep in her class. When they are disrespectful, she subtracts points from their cards. When necessary, she sends for backup or removes a student to timeout.

In the midst of constant disruption on a particularly bad day, she returns to the lesson over and over again. She's drilling students on how to form the plurals of words ending in Y. Some manage to pay attention, do their work and answer her questions.

"Yes, I go home tired," James said, after this taxing class. "But I went home tired when I taught in regular school. You saw a lot of the same behavior there, and here you can address it."
In a way, she said, that makes it easier.

And late in the school year, she sees some students improve. One of them is Andrew Dilworth. Dilworth came to ABC more than over two years ago. Wells said he would fight at the slightest provocation.

This year, in James' class, he's put his leadership abilities to work.

"When they come into class really acting out, they set the rest to going," James said. "Andrew has stepped right in as a peer mediator, and I didn't have to say a word."

Dilworth says teachers' attitudes make a difference.

"Here you have teachers who act like they care," he said. "Ms. Griffith and Ms. Moore (Wendy Moore teaches the computer lab), they act like they care about me and their jobs. They're working us to death in P.E., though."

Rodgers, too, appreciates the extra help from teachers and from being able to progress at his own pace. In his two years at the school, he has largely caught up to his grade level. He doesn't enjoy the negative consequences like timeout, which he says gets boring. But he would someday like to work at ABC-East with students like himself.

When asked how he would do things, he says he wouldn't change anything.

Former students come by and tell assistant principal Sharron Waszkiewicz they wouldn't have made it without ABC, she said. This year she received a graduation invitation from a girl she remembers needing restraint her first year. The girl will attend college and hopes to go on to law school. That kind of change has kept Waszkiewicz going since 1983. She feels she is making a real difference in their lives.

"Even though they have this anxiety, they can learn to succeed," Waszkiewicz said. "They can do it, but it's a learning process."

Sheetrock therapy
If change doesn't come easily to these students, it may be the result of some extremely difficult circumstances in their lives: Sexual abuse, the deaths of parents and parental drug abuse may contribute to their emotional disability.

"When I saw a lot of the students' past history, it got to my heart," said Margaret James. "They have really been through some stuff."

All students have been identified as having emotional disability by their schools. ED is not a diagnosis, but a category of disability that entitles students to special education services.

They often have multiple layers of problems carrying several diagnoses. ADHD and learning disabilities are often linked, and when they go unrecognized by a school, the student's negative experiences in school can lead to oppositional defiant disorder, experts say. ADHD, learning disabilities and ODD are a common pattern at ABC. Depression, too, is common, while bipolar disorder is seen less often.

More than half are on medication. School nurse Shirley Talley dispenses 55-60 doses of medication a day as prescribed by students' psychiatrists or physicians. The school does not diagnose or prescribe medication, but doctors often ask for school input when monitoring the effects of medications.

Wells said that without medication students with chemical imbalances in their brains would not benefit from the behavior intervention and would require an even more structured, restrictive setting.
Not every student responds to the ABC program.

Students with addiction issues are referred to substance abuse programs because addiction interferes with positive reinforcement, Wells said. Students who believe they get stature with their peers by acting out also have difficulty accepting positive reinforcement.

Students who don't attend regularly don't benefit, Wells said, because they don't experience the consequences, both positive and negative, of their behavior. She encourages parents to make sure students come to school on the day following a problem. Emotionally disturbed students are at high risk for dropping out of school. Approximately 54.8 percent drop out, compared to 24.4 percent of the general population.

The counseling program is a crucial element in to supporting the students. They have weekly individual and group sessions with one of four licensed professional counselors who have a range of specialties.
Sometimes a caring attitude counts for just as much.

Michael Holcombe, an assistant in the extremely restrictive discipline classroom reserved for kids who refuse to engage in the program, said students like to think they're tough. In reality, he said, they're embarrassed by their disabilities and adopt a streetwise air as a cover.

He shares some details of his own tough early life with them, including his older brother's death from liver failure as a result of drinking. Most of his schoolmates are either dead or in jail, he says. But he made it out, he tells them, and they can, too. Holcombe said he has learned to back off sometimes to stay out of a power struggle. Wells, he said, assured him that the student you are working with may never get it, but five others watching will learn from his mistakes. Her message changed his whole approach.

Depression is common among students and sometimes results in suicidal thoughts or threats. When suicidal students act out, they are seen by a counselor right away instead of being sent to isolation in timeout.

Sometimes students threaten others. One boy left the ABC campus and threatened to hurt others at his home elementary school. Wells said staff members tracked him down and tried to determine whether the threat was real and whether he had a plan. The boy and his family were offered outside counseling.

The 10 girls in the program get some special attention from counselor Karesa Braun. She said they get constant grief from the program's 90-plus boys. Brown tries to bolster their femininity with programs on hygiene, grooming and sexuality.

The school looks for activities for all students to help reduce stress and build self-esteem - like art, music and working in the school garden.
Lee Wilcox said his industrial arts course should be called Confidence Building 101. He said it's perfect for teen-age boys.

They build porches, repair cars and tear things apart to see how they work.

"I teach them to build walls of Sheetrock and then let them knock holes in it, which this group seems to like to do," Wilcox said.

"Then I teach them how to repair it."

Wilcox drives more than 70 miles a day to teach at the school because he likes these kids. As a young man, he was a little like them.

When kids come into the program, they are angry and want to hurt things, he said. "By the time they leave," he said, pausing for effect and grinning, "they aren't perfect."

Wells said behavior management, academics and therapeutics are all essential and intertwined. When parents reinforce the program at home, the student has a much better chance of making changes, she said. Sometimes, though, the parents are as angry and volatile as their children.

"It helps if the parent has accepted that the student, not the school, needs to change," she said. "Sometimes parents are too close to the situation. They may be used to rescuing their children."

Frances Rodgers-Needham has become involved at ABC-East to support her son, Josh Rodgers, who has ADHD, ODD and learning disability. She works with him as well as volunteering to tutor other students in reading or math.

She feels angry that her son had to go all the way to ABC-East before he reached a program that would meet his needs. School districts have good programs, she said, but some children need more resources and attention.

"The school districts don't want to cough up the money," she said. "They want to give these children their grades and let them walk out into the world knowing nothing, unable to read. My child deserves an education."

Though her son can still be volatile and reactive, she has seen tremendous changes. He's improved his grades, his appearance and the choices he makes. He's working a double shift as a waiter on weekends and starting to make plans for his future.

Students like Josh, she said, have abilities that never get nurtured in a world that can't see past their behavior. She credits teachers in the program with the kind of vision her child needs.

"He has made improvement I thought I would never see," she said. "For once in his life, I can say he might just make it."

Next month When a child with mental illness reaches adolesence, the stakes get higher, often involving an exhausted family, the onset of major mental illness and sometimes the juvenile-justice system.

Reprinted with permission of the Houston Chronicle, copyright 1998