Before All Else, Children Must Feel Safe and Be Safe. So the Administration Locked the Bathrooms.

May 3, 2010 at 7:42 pm Leave a comment

posted by Meghan Dunn ’08, 3rd grade teacher, Brooklyn

I have been teaching at a low-income school in Bedford-Stuyvesant for the past five years. In that time I have born witness to, and unfortunately participated in, multiple experiences that are extremely unfortunate to both the children and the community in general. However nothing in recent memory has incited me as much as the most recent events at my school.

About two weeks ago, a third grader of mine (rather small in stature) was held up by the ankles and dunked head first into a toilet by a group of middle schoolers. My preK-5 elementary school shares a building with a 6-8 middle school. While the practice of sharing buildings is common in New York, it is a little ridiculous that two schools share a space and essentially students, yet act like they are two passing ships in the night, without any positive interactions. But that is for another discussion. The bathroom in question is part of the elementary school, but frequently overrun by middle school students since there is very little rule and order in the other school.

After the incident, I did my best to clean up the student. I found a paraprofessional to watch my class while I marched myself to the office of the middle school to demand attention. I called the boy’s mom, stayed after school, and did everything in my power to try to soothe him and find some sort of resolution to this situation. The boy however had no idea who the other students were at all. Out of this incident, two very disturbing, yet important, things happened. The first thing was that all of the bathrooms in the school became locked. Except under special circumstances (mostly at lunch time) there were no open bathrooms. The second was not so much of an occurrence, but more of a realization. This had to do with the amount of trauma that my students are experiencing and carrying around in their daily lives.

The administration decided that since the bathrooms were apparently unsafe places, that they could no longer exist. So no one can go to the bathroom, except during lunch with the teacher’s supervision, and on the extreme off chance that they find an open bathroom. The ridiculousness of the policy is immediately apparent. You cannot deny a school of children the right to go to the bathroom during the day. Just as ridiculous as the policy, was the implementation of it. There was no staff meeting, no memo, not even an announcement. The bathroom was just locked one day. This does happen occasionally, so students (and teachers) spent the first few days trying to figure out if this was just an isolated incident, and walking around the school trying to find an unlocked bathroom.

This incident over the past few weeks has incensed me more than many of the other horrifying events that I have witnessed at my school. I don’t know what it is about it – the fact that all these things are stemming from a student in my class, or because a few of my students (all 3rd graders) have had accidents the past few weeks because of the lack of bathroom facilities, or maybe it is because I am someone who frequently has to go to the bathroom so I feel a lot of empathy towards an eight year old.  Whatever the reason (and really, does there have to be one beyond the obvious ludicrousness of it all?) this has blown me away. I am furious about this. My students are ultimately being treated like animals. They have nothing. No rights. No anything.

The other thing that has come out of this is a series of class discussions around what I would term safety and the human condition. Just after the incident, we had a community meeting to talk about what had happened. I should mention here, too, that for the most part I have been teaching the same group of students since 1st grade, and this is my 3rd year with them. So we have a very close bond, and act in a very different way than other classes in the school. During this class meeting when we were discussing the incident, all of my students immediately began unloading really horrendous stories of trauma that had occurred to them while in the bathroom – from seeing kids being harassed, to physically beating up other kids, to seeing kids being dunked head first into the toilet – pretty horrible and traumatic events, that challenge one’s sense of safety and order in life.

Two events, though, were especially shocking. The first, was told by a male student who saw two other students holding a knife up to a third child in the bathroom. The last incident came from a little girl in my class who told me about a boy who followed her into the bathroom one day, and stood in front of the door and told her that he was going to rape her. The little girl shared with the class that she didn’t know rape was, but she was pretty sure that it was bad. At this point, my teacher decorum pretty much flew out the window as my initial reaction took hold, and I was almost shouting as I responded. Essentially, I could not understand why a student (and I was really thinking of the little girl here) would constantly be tattle-telling about broken pencils, someone who touched her shoe, a wrong look, etc…but not tell me when these huge, traumatizing, and extremely dangerous events were taking place.

There are a variety of reasons for withholding this type of information, which have a lot to do with the community itself, the fear of being labeled a “snitch,” and adult-child interactions where the phrase “I don’t want to hear it” is frequently used. I can postulate about the motivation and feelings around this at a later time. However, the thing that kept reverberating with me was the trauma that these small children were enduring every day, and the fact that nothing was being done about it. Not only were the adults not effectively responding to it, but the children were acting like it wasn’t there, didn’t happen. They weren’t telling anyone; they weren’t crying out; it was just endured. This realization made a million other thoughts immediately start flying through my head.

The first has to do with the failings of a school system, and a little of me as the responsible adult, in providing a safe environment for children. Teaching in a low income community, I am aware of the challenges that my students and their families face, and how these impact the school. I know that many of my students count on school as a stable place, a consistent place to go every day, and a place to get reliable meals. I naively thought that school was the “safe place.” Yes, I know there are some bullying instances, and recess on the playground is usually a mess. But overall, I believed I provided a safe environment. As I started to realize the trauma that my students were experiencing in the six-hour school day, it made me question what else is going on during the other 18 hours a day in their lives.

On one hand, I want to sit there, and talk through it all with them. I want to tell them that it is okay to speak out; that standing up for your beliefs, standing up for a basic right is important, and worth fighting for. There is no one in their lives giving them a sense of entitlement about something like going to the bathroom. There is no sense of indignation around the fact that people should not be treated like this. While I want to instill this in them, and talk about everything, I am also painfully aware of the statistics surrounding low income students and literacy and graduation rates. I can’t have a community circle for three hours a day discussing these issues. But I also don’t see how I can ignore all of this either. How can a child sit through a lesson on using envision skills while reading, when someone just threatened to rape them?

Ultimately, too, I am left wondering, what is the human capacity to survive and transcend trauma? There has to be a threshold, especially for an eight-year-old. We study many social justice issues in my class, and we have talked a lot about suffering and injustice. When I think back to some of these examples in history, they are also about shared experience. These children are suffering in silence. There is no shared experience. As I quickly learned in my community circle, they were not sharing these experiences with anyone, rather they were enduring the suffering in silence. There has to be a limit. A breaking point of traumatic experience.

Meghan Dunn is a graduate of The George Washington University and The Bank Street College of Education. She was a 2005 Teach for America corps member, and has been teaching in her original placement school for the past five years. Meghan has been looping with her current class for the past three years. She also runs a Girl Scout Troop for students at her school in grades 1st – 6th.

Entry filed under: classrooms, community, dialogue, equity, social-emotional learning, urban schools.

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