During the fall of 2009, I was a long-term 6th grade substitute for a teacher who was pregnant. The students in the four classes were, overall, polite and eager to learn. Some discipline problems arose, but none too seriously. However, the recent school shooting in Florida and the news reports of the killer’s troubled past in the school, reminded me of an experience I had while substituting in that rural Virginia school system.
One day while teaching, I heard loud shouting, cursing, and noise out in the communal area for the 6th grade classes. When I looked up in surprise, one of my students said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Barbee, it’s just “Earl” (a false name). When I inquired later about Earl, other teachers told me that he had a history of violent outbursts, but the assistant principal was taking care of everything. Everyone, it seemed, accepted Earl’s explosions.
Continuing to substitute in the school system, I often encountered Earl, but never had him in a class that I taught. But, his presence was felt as he would have his outbursts, be suspended for a period of days (even as a middle schooler), and return to repeat the pattern. When he entered one of the county’s high schools, I sometimes supervised him when he was in “in school suspension” for some violation. Always pleasant and engaging in those long days of sitting in an enclosed room, Earl would share with me that he just could not control his temper. Yet, once again, an assistant principal was “taking care” of the issues. Earl was a good athlete, and he loved playing football. I tried to get him to wrestle, but he refused, choosing instead to work on his football skills. Whenever I substituted at the high school and did not see him I would ask about him and be told that he had been suspended for ten days. Once he was transferred to another county high school for disciplinary reasons but was allowed back for the following football season. After he graduated, I would sometimes read his name in the local newspaper for assaulting a family member or someone else. His anger still ruled.
Nickolaus Cruz and his past are like that of Earl. Both are troubled young men who do not know how to navigate the world. And, I offer, that neither of them should have been in the public-school system because the teachers and administrators in our public schools are not trained to treat such issues as these young boys have. Earl would bash lockers, curse teachers, storm around the hallways, and frighten other students. No one, even Earl, knew when his next volcanic outburst would occur. Our teachers are trained to teach English, history, science, math, art, drama, music, and more. While they are quite good at helping students with some discipline issues, they are not equipped, nor have the time, to deal with severe problems such as those of Earl or Cruz. Such students need special help, and it must begin early. By the 6th grade, Earl had a well-earned reputation for his anger. That is a failure of his school system, and I wager that Nickolaus Cruz had a similar history.
I applaud the teachers who tried to help Nickolaus Cruz and those who tried to help Earl. While I don’t know first-hand about school systems and their policies today, I suspect that they do as the rural one did with Earl. Too many troubled students are cycled through the school days and yearss: call a teacher an “asshole”, or “prick” or “fucking bitch” and be suspended for ten days before returning to school as if nothing happened; disobey a directive of a teacher and be suspended from school for a day or three; and on and on the cycle goes for some of our children. Suspended from school. Return. Nothing happened, right?
It is unconscionable for our teachers, other students, or anyone to be forced to endure such behavior and vile language. Students like Earl and Nickolaus should not be in our mainstream schools. They need special help, and I know from my experience, that most of these students can be identified in the very early years of schooling. Cycling them through school days, then years, will not help them or us. They need to be with professionals who are equipped to help them, and this will give our mainstream teachers and students the chance to do their work.