As long ago as the late 1980s, analysts saw big trouble coming.
Babies born to mothers who used crack cocaine showed the same symptoms as their addicted parents -- chronic irritability, inability to concentrate, poor reasoning.
In 1990, Jeptha V. Greer wrote “We are facing the emerging of what some are now calling a ‘bio-underclass’ -- a frightening proportion of the next generation of school children will have impairments based on the physical and chemical damage done to fetal brains by drug-abusing mothers.”
“The evidence is mounting and it is horrifying,” Greer wrote in an academic journal. Some studies showed as many as 15 percent of pregnant mothers were using illegal drugs or alcohol, and experts feared the real rates may be double that.
Even at that time, reports on afflicted infants pointed to poor body-state regulation, tremors, chronic irritability and poor visual orientation.
Children born to drug addicted mothers are likely to experience the same thoughts and mood disorders as a recovering addict, which is what the child is, Greer said.
Symptoms turning up in the classroom included poor abstract reasoning and memory, poor judgment, inability to concentrate, inability to deal with stress, frequent tantrums, a wide variety of behavior disorders, and violent acting out.
Acting out painful feelings often results in a tantrum or some other kind of demand for attention.
The opposite of “acting out” is to expressing painful feelings by talking them out.
When Marge Beatty read that article, she was mesmerized.
Beatty directs the Educational Service Unit 16, which serves schools in nine west central Nebraska counties, including Lincoln County. ESUs provide such things as email programs, counselors, special education instructions and advisories to school staffs.
“It seems like yesterday,” Beatty said when she read the article. “I remember thinking: We really need to prepare for this.”
The use of methamphetamine has heightened such problems.
Schools and families face extreme challenges now -- the challenges of very young children with serious emotional disturbances, Beatty said.
Meeting the challenge is no simple task. Even medications don’t always work.
“One of the main problems of children who become drug addicted in the womb is that they do not respond well to medications,” Beatty said. “It’s troubling. You can’t treat it medically.”
Problems can spread in schools, because all children are first “mainstreamed” in regular classrooms. Issues that develop are considered individually. Teachers, counselors and parents meet and develop an Individual Educational Profile (IEP), providing mentoring/tutoring, counseling or other treatment.
Often the student remains in the regular classroom for most of the day. If they act out, they disrupt the class. In extreme cases, they physically endanger other students, themselves and/or the teacher.
There are relatively few other places for students.
“Early on, we could find a place to treat them,” Beatty said. “We used to have more options.”
Five years ago or so, alternative classrooms were offered by hospitals and social service organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Home in North Platte and the Salvation Army as well as state supported centers in Kearney and York. But those places are now closed. Several were closed in 2010 in the governor’s failed effort to privatize the state’s foster care program.
“Those children are now staying in our neighborhood schools,” Beatty said. “That has been another aspect of the problem.”
To cope, ESU advisors now provide “crisis prevention intervention” or CPI training to teachers, administrators and staff.
Mary Louise Lehman is one of the trainers. Lehman has worked for the ESU for nearly 25 years.
Lehman said the training is offered over two days to a core of the school staff, including at least one administrator. Those who are trained pass it along to the rest of the staff, if all goes as planned. And, trainers receive a half-day refresher course each year.
Faced with violent behavior, the teacher’s main challenge is to be proactive and remain calm, Lehman said.
“We work on verbal de-escalation – how to inter-act with different levels of emotions, how to protect yourself from being hit or kicked, and, as a last resort, how to safely restrain the child and transport them to another room if necessary,” she said.
According to the CIP website, adults at the school should remain calm and allow the person to vent, standing slightly to one side in a non-confrontational manner, and use physical techniques only as a last resort.
“Physical techniques should be used only when individuals are a danger to themselves or others,” according to the CPI. “Physical interventions should be used only by competent/ trained staff. Any physical intervention may be dangerous.”
Lehman did not say how many students with extreme behaviors are in the schools, but she said every school in the nine-county ESU area has experienced it.
To meet the needs of some students requires lots of research and diagnoses, she said.
“I don’t think I’ve seen any that are totally unmanageable,” she said, “but a couple schools have had to shorten school days for some of the most challenging students. They might be manageable for a half day but not a full day.”
“I think it’s a big problem,” she said. “Behavior (of students) continues to be a big challenge for teachers. It certainly adds to the big expectations we have of them.”
Lehman said teachers will do what they can to help their students.
“The longer I do this, the more respect I have for the teachers in this area,” she said. “They will go the extra mile.”
Lehman remains optimistic that schools can meet the challenges. She said optimism is probably a good character trait in her profession.
Inside the turmoil
Have you ever been so angered that words escaped you in the moment, and the only way you could express yourself was by screaming or throwing something?
You probably felt justified in your actions because it was the only way you could vent your expression of extreme upset.
But what would life be like if you could never retrieve the words you wanted when you needed them and you always seemed to be grappling with overwhelming or frustrating circumstances that caused you to react in extreme ways as the only option?
-- from a Crisis Prevention Intervention training manual used in schools
(This report was first published in the June 25 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.)