Victims of Violence
By Jill Jenkins
As educators we often use differentiated instruction to reach students who are on different learning levels or have learning disabilities. In fact, since mainstreaming came into practice, teachers provide instruction to a more diverse group of pupils. In one class, a teacher might have a student with an I.Q. of 155 sitting next to a student with an I.Q. of 65. She may have a student who recently arrived from Ghana who not only does not speak any English, but has not learned the Phoenician alphabet sitting next to a student whose parents both have PhD’s in English literature. Still through the magic of scaffolding, the teacher will make certain all of these students pass the Common Core Exam with proficient marks. Despite her diligent efforts one group of students sometimes are not recognized. These are the students who are suffering from emotional disabilities because they have been the victims of violence. When children witness violence or suffer it first-hand it can affect them in different ways depending on their age and their temperament. Some students may become disruptive in class and others may withdraw. Those who act out are easy to recognize, but the more depressed students who are compliant with the rules but reserved may go unnoticed. Some of these students wear heavy coats even in warm weather and pull their head almost inside disappearing like turtles. Perhaps they are trying to disappear from the pain. Teachers have a responsibility to these students. Their emotional disability makes it difficult for them to perform well in school, especially on tests, and more importantly their disability makes it difficult for them to become a productive, self-reliant person.
When I was growing up in a lower-economic neighborhood in the 1960’s, children never told adults in authority anything. You didn’t “rat” people out to the teacher or the police or even your parents. I knew things that could have saved a young man’s life if I had not lived by the code of street. When I would stay with my grandmother and later my unmarried aunt after my grandmother passed away, there was a family of children with whom I often played, the Doe’s. They had three children: Jane, who was my age; John, who was a year younger; and Bill who was two years younger. Their mother had died in a car accident. That is the official story of how she died, but that isn’t the story they told me. They said it had happened on snowy winter night. Their father was driving the car when he opened the passenger-side door and pushed his wife out. Then he drove the car back and forth across her body until she was dead. All three children were in the car and saw what transpired, but because of the threats made by their father, none of them said anything. Children who witness violence are forever affected.
Mr. Doe owned a local tavern. When I spent the night at my aunt’s house, I would hear a group of drunken men arrive late at night or early in the morning. The father allowed the men to carouse with his then 13 year old daughter in inappropriate manners. At school, Jane was always silent and obedient to teachers, but extremely withdrawn. From my younger brother, I learned that John and Bill were also obedient, but withdrawn. Teachers may have had no knowledge of what was happening in that house. One winter day in the eighth grade, John hung himself with his belt from his bunk bed. Even though everyone who knew him was horrified, the tradition of the 1960’s meant that no one talked about it. Suicide was a taboo topic, especially the suicide of a child. To this day I wonder if someone could have saved John if I had spoken to a teacher. There are children today who live by that code of silence especially in inner-cities. To help these students you must create a nurturing environment where students feel safe and cared for. If students feel comfortable with you, if they feel that you are a person who is trustworthy and caring, they are more likely to share these problems with you. Without that communication, you cannot direct them to the professionals who can help them.
I know teaching is a hectic job. The curriculum is too large for the number days of instruction available, there are assemblies, papers to correct, and your email is filled with parent’s questions and complaints, but we teach children, not just a subject. The teacher is the only connection to the outside world these students have. I know you are not trained as a psychologist, but you don’t need to be a psychologist. You just need to listen to these children, watch for signs: in the writing, in their behavior, even in their dress. Encourage students who know information that could help another child to come forward. Then, connect these children with the school counseling staff, the school psychologist or sometimes even a parent. You not only have a moral obligation to do this, but in many states you have a legal responsibility to report any incidents of child abuse or suspected child abuse. The legal agency do not reveal who reported the incident, but they investigate it and if it is valid, they provide counseling to the child, the family and if necessary remove the child to a safe environment.
Depressed teenagers often commit suicide, so you must take students seriously if they talk about suicide or if they write about it. Since you do not know when they may act on their thoughts, it is imperative to act quickly and notify a parent or a counselor that day. My second year of teaching, I was teaching in an Alternative Program and many of our students had issues. One particularly quiet, withdrawn student who seemed perpetually depressed told me that he was going to commit suicide. I called his mother that day. Thirty years later, he called me and told me that I had saved his life. He had planned to commit suicide on his way home from school that day, but because I had called his mother, she picked him up and took him to his psychologist. He was angry at first that I had called her, but in the end his life turned out wonderful and he was so grateful to me for stopping him. Most of the time, as teachers we never know how we affect our students’ lives, but I in that particular instance I know that one phone call made a difference.
My dad, my grandmother and my uncle
Witnessing violence affects children in different ways. They may become violent or act out, or they may become depressed and withdraw like the Doe children. My own father’s earliest memories were of his father, an alcoholic, beating his mother and holding a gun to her head. My father was probably four years old at the time, but it affected his choices the rest of his life. Lucky for me, he decided that he did not want to be like his father, so he never raised his hand to anyone. Children feel the need to protect the parent who is being victimized and often feel guilty when they are unable to protect them. Domestic violence knows no limits of social-economic status, so regardless of where you teach watch for the signs.
The world is a violent place and since many of our students have experienced war first hand, they have seen untold violence. My former in-laws were both in hiding in Holland during the Holocaust. As a boy, he watched people boiled to death in oil, women raped and a baby thrown into the air and caught on a bayonet. He also listened from his hiding place as the Gestapo beat his father to death. Both my father-in-law and my mother-in-law shared with me that smallest thing could set off the paralyzing fear: seeing a highway patrol officer’s high boots, because they were like those worn by members of the Gestapo, the sound of gun shots from the firing range near our house, or even thunder. Some students may show no signs like Juan, one of my former students, who had lost both of his arms when his parents threw him from their fifth story apartment and his arms hit the electrical wires burning both of his arms off when they were escaping a Coup in Colombia. Juan was one of my best students writing three page essays at record speed with his pencil held between his teeth. Hard work and humor were Juan’s weapons against his past. Other students who have experienced war have resorted to violence shooting other people in shopping malls, or turning the violence inward and committing suicide.
Many students in your class could have witnessed domestic violence and some may be refuges from war zones. As a teacher, you are the eyes and ears of the school. You need to study these children carefully and if you see a student who needs help, do not hesitate to get it for him. A student's life may be in the balance. When you are scaffolding instructions, be aware of the victims of violence. It is not only your moral obligation, it is a legal one.
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