difficult problems after the death of nuance

I have seen now some dozen people share this ProPublica map, about the use of restraining holds on school children, on various social networks and websites. It makes me sad, because this issue is sad. But the kind of reactions that are being provoked also make me sad, because they demonstrate the ways in which the world of sharing and likes and shallow understanding destroys nuance and creates a bogus conception of a black-and-white world.

It happens that I have some experience in this regard. For about a year and a half, I worked in a public school that had a special, segregated section for kids with severe emotional disturbance. Some of the students were significantly mainstreamed into the general ed population, but many couldn’t be, as they posed too much of a risk to other students and to themselves. Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood. I saw a student try to cut his own lip with safety scissors. I saw a girl tear padding from a padded wall and eat it; when she eventually had to be removed from the school via ambulance, she urinated on herself, rubbed her face with her urine, and attempted to do the same to paramedics.

Mental illness is powerful and terrible and that’s the world we live in.

Part of the response to this kind of behavior was restraint. I didn’t enjoy doing it; none of the staff did. Hated it, in fact. We were all trained in how to provide restraint as safely as possible, but that didn’t mean we were under any illusion: we knew that these techniques were uncomfortable and potentially harmful to students. Injuries to staff members were common. A fellow staff member badly broke her tailbone in the process of restraining a child, an injury that left her unable to work for a calender year. There was something gross about the euphemism “therapeutic hold,” and we talked about the trainings with black humor. I left, after that year and a half or so, because I could not take the emotional toll. There were women there who had been working with such children for over 30 years. I couldn’t make it two. The notion that these women were somehow callous or unconcerned about these children is ludicrous and defamatory. They had dedicated their lives to helping these kids, for terribly low pay. They had to watch these kids grow up and get shipped to the middle school level where there was no similar program. And we were the last stop, for these kids, before the state mental health system. That was the stark choice: if it didn’t work here, the only alternatives were either special private schools, which given that the students were overwhemingly from poverty, was not an option at all, or being committed to the state mental system, which most likely meant institutionalization and constant medication. Those were the stakes.

I have struggled to write about that period of my life for years, as I am still unable to adequately process the emotions I felt. I do know and will loudly say that the women (and besides me they were almost all women) who worked as teachers and paraprofessionals were an inspiration in the true sense, working quietly and without celebration to bring a little education and relief for children who life had treated terribly. They shame me with their dedication. To see them and people like them repeatedly represented as serial abusers who don’t care for if they harm children is infuriating, baseless, and wrong.

The question I have for someone like Heather Helen Vogell, who wrote this sensationalistic and damaging piece for ProPublica, and for all of the people sharing that map with breathless outrage, is this: what alternative would you propose? I am not kidding when I tell you that dozens of times, there was no choice but to physically restrain a child. The only alternative was to allow that child to badly hurt another or him- or herself. If you think that a 7 year old is incapable of badly harming another person, I assure you, you’re wrong. I have seen many people arguing that there is never a situation where such restraint is necessary, and  all I can say is that you’re ignorant, and that your ignorance is dangerous. To say that all children can be verbally calmed in all situations is to betray a stunning lack of understanding of the reality of childhood mental illness. Vogell mentions in passing that there are situations in which restraint is necessary, then spends thousands of words ignoring that fact. At every time when she is faced with a journalistic or stylistic choice, she opts for the most sensationalistic and unsympathetic presentation possible, minimizing the other side and failing to even pretend to have genuinely wrestled with the topic before coming to a conclusion. It’s not just that she insults thousands of nameless, faceless public servants who no capacity to fight back or even be seen as potentially-sympathetic human beings. It’s just lousy journalism, written for a clickbait culture, utterly credulous to one set of opinions and utterly dismissive of another. It’s an embarrassment.

Meanwhile, childhood mental illness continues to wreak its terrible havoc, and educators will be forced to make terrible choices. I hated restraining those children, but I saw with my own two eyes the incredible violence that mental illness made possible, and I do not for one minute regret properly restraining children when that was the only way to save that child or another from bodily harm. I invite Vogell, or any of the people loudly expressing their outrage, to take jobs in special education or child mental health services. You can actually get involved, you know. See it with your own eyes. Help actual human lives get a little bit better. See what choice you’re able to make when it is clear that you must intervene or allow injury to another person. But I’m afraid that takes more time and effort then launching a tweet.

In the broader view, I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American liberalism culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them; that there is no issue of such emotional and moral complexity that many people can’t reduce it to a black-and-white caricature; and that we have created a media which has made its financial best interest inextricable from destroying depth, nuance, and complexity. I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers. I do know that this is no way to run a democracy. And I also know that, years from now, when people like Vogell are no longer wasting a second of their time thinking about physical restraint of children who are a danger to themselves and others, the women in my program will be working, quietly and selflessly and for awful compensation, trying to help the children they are now accused of abusing.


  1. I volunteered regularly for about a year and a half at a children’s/young adult’s literacy center modeled on San Francisco’s 826 Valencia. We offered after-school homework help as well as classes for young aspiring poets, novelists, and journalists. It is exhausting working with kids, even the most well-behaved and amenable to guidance from adults. There is certainly joy involved, and I was able to meet and interact with some truly amazing young people. I realize this is a very narrow window into the world you’re describing, but I share your admiration for the professionals who work with mentally ill children in the spirit of kindness and concern and harm-reduction year-in and year-out.

  2. I’m not sure solutions have a place in outrage journalism. Rage against a problem, and readers will agree or disagree. Offer a solution, and readers will divide four ways: some of the ones who agree with your problem will disagree with your solution, and that just hurts your ability to sell the next story.

    I don’t mean to imply that anyone is refraining from offering solutions. I think it never occurs to them that offering a solution might be helpful.

  3. Thank you for your candor. Life is shades of gray, not black and white, and often the best choice we can make is to move from one shade of gray to a lighter shade.

  4. I remember Freddie writing about this tough job before. I believe this kid also gave Freddie a shiner with his golden medallion.

    “we have created a media which has made its financial best interest inextricable from destroying depth, nuance, and complexity. I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore…”

    It’s not just journalistic media where you’ll find this flaw. When you read accounts like Freddie’s, and you haven’t had (or already heard) his experience, it sounds so foreign–because what popular culture ever dramatizes experiences like these? Simplistic solutions are Hollywood’s stock in trade. No problem is intractable in movies, thanks to good intentions and hard work. A person like Freddie would be depicted as an ineffectual, cynical supervisor or bureaucrat character who eventually sees the light after the hero’s can-do spirit works its magic.

  5. Leave the kids alone? Who is really being helped by special education, the kids, or the organizations and employees getting millions from taxpayers? If you are assaulting disabled children as part of a scam you are a monster

    1. Well, I could ask, as I did above, what exactly you think people should do if there’s no choice but to restrain a child in order to prevent violence. Instead I’ll just point out that if you think being a public special education teacher is some sort of get-rich-quick scheme, you’re deluded.

    2. No, “Wilson”, a person who would read a story like this and blithley make a statement like “You are a monster” is the monster.

      Your very response perfectly illustrates his point. As, I suppose in a sense, does mine, but…

      What is YOUR solution…to let the kids roam the streets? As Freddie notes, many come from poverty or disfunctional families, from mothers who would probably be unable to control or keep safe their children.

  6. Freddie,
    I read the peace and I think that your criticism is also a little too strong. The map clearly breaks down the situations in which the state allows restraint and I only see a few states where it is only to be applied to disabled students. I hope you can see where most parents might be concerned that a child can be restrained or secluded without parental notification. Do you think these policies are the best states can have?

    1. Additionally, the Vogell essay, which Freddie argues doesn’t offer any solutions, does indeed offer solutions.

        1. What’s your point, precisely?

          Anyway, even if Vogell’s proposed solution is unrealistic, it still isn’t correct that she never proposed any solutions.

          1. My point being that an approach to a problem coming from a particular, and probably advantageous, set of circumstances might be interesting and worth looking at, but “solution” is a gross overstatement.

            I agree with Freddie that the general tenor of the article is that thousands of these poor kids are being tortured all over the country by uncaring teachers and administrators, with little acknowledgment of how profoundly difficult some of these problems are given social circumstances, resources available, and so on. It describes the worst cases and the best cases, and Freddie stepped in to describe the stuff in the middle, which is what I suspect is the vast bulk of what’s really going on.

          2. I agree that the piece was sensationalistic, if somewhat drily so, and would have benefitted from more empathy to the teachers Freddie describes. But it’s misleading to say that Vogell doesn’t offer alternatives.

            Offering a solution that worked in an affluent school district seems to suggest that there is an alternative solution: it’s just expensive. To just hand-wave this away, or worse, to ignore it to score points on Vogell, seems counterproductive.

  7. the ways in which the world of sharing and likes and shallow understanding destroys nuance and creates a bogus conception of a black-and-white world.

    Freddie, you can’t really believe that shocking headlines and shallow reactions are new to the internet.

    1. Greetings, Isomorphismes! It is I, Ellie from the Twitterverse.

      I read your three comments, and I was not disappointed. You thanked the author, and recognized the sensationalized aspect of the Pro Publica article (sometimes, they DO write in the public interest…sometimes).

      Fredrik deBoer, you are a good man. You spent two years of your own life helping these children. You laud the virtues of brave women who do such work for decades. You wrote this post as an effort to dispel figurative demons of ignorance that can undermine the (minimal) city, state or federal programs that exist now. I don’t understand why anyone would label you as a “feminist critic” based on this post! I noticed the pingbacks. You actually highlight, give some voice to women whose contribution to society remains unknown and unappreciated. Thank you for caring.

  8. To see them and people like them repeatedly represented as serial abusers who don’t care for if they harm children is infuriating, baseless, and wrong.

    But ProPublica is journalism in the public interest! It says so right in the title! /sarcasm

  9. I got tricked into clicking on that article a few days ago. A close relative of mine has been in and out of the mental hospital over six times in the past few years. Near-daily, I sat next to them and listened to them talk about their struggles in that institution, and the lengths that institution took to keep them alive. Restraint was used at times, and they were under constant surveillance.

    Many of these institutions employ shaky & unfounded theory in the structuring of their daily routines, group sessions, classes, and so on. And I think you’re leaving out the extent of the desensitization or deadness that seems to come with the job. (I guess off-shift there’s a different story). But the people working there kept my relative alive and safe in a way we couldn’t have hoped to. And there were therapists who did the best they could with their limited contact. The restraint was necessary.

    So yeah, that article, fuck it. Just a random thought, but I think we could blame One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for some of this shit. Somehow. Maybe.

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