Shattered Lives

It wasn’t unusual for the little boy to throw chairs or desks in his kindergarten classroom. Sometimes the six-year-old would just run away.

That’s what happened one day when Kay Tebo, principal of West Side Elementary, was called in her office.

Even though the boy was so young, he already had a history of trouble and seemed to be on a “suicide mission,” Tebo remembers. When he would become agitated, teachers would have to physically restrain him, sometimes taking hours of soothing talk before he would calm down.

So when the boy walked off the school grounds one day, Tebo wasn’t exactly surprised. She followed the boy to his house, where she found him and his father engaging in a heated argument.

When Tebo asked the boy to leave with her, he threw a plastic cup of pop against the wall in his home and stormed out the front door.

As they made the walk back to West, the boy looked up at Tebo and made a remark that is still etched in her mind.

“I don’t know what he meant, but he stopped and said, ‘I could get into the mood with you.”’ Tebo says, still remembering the eerie look the boy had on his face.

Alarmed, Tebo asked the boy where he had learned such language. He replied, “My dad.”

Worry-free smiles and innocent giggles are replaced by sordid secrets and hidden tales of violence behind closed doors for thousands of today’s youths. It is estimated that at least 3.3 million children witness domestic violence each year, leaving the “traditional” Beaver Cleaver childhood slowly edging toward extinction.

In 1991, Cheboygan County accounted for 116 cases of child abuse or neglect, averaging 20.7 per 1,000 children, according to information provided by the Children’s Trust Fund in Lansing.

During the past 10 years, abuse and neglect cases within the county have risen by 37.7 percent.

Statewide there were 26,366 cases of child abuse and neglect, averaging a rate of 9.8 per 1,000 children.

According to information compiled by the National Woman Abuse Prevention Project (NWAPP), children in homes where domestic violence occurs may experience cognitive or language problems, developmental delays, stress-related physical ailments (such as headaches, ulcers and rashes) and hearing and speech problems.

Within the classrooms at West Elementary “we see a lot of learning problems and we’re seeing them earlier on because of the students not coming to school ready to learn,” Tebo said.

“We know there’s an awful lot of abuse going on and we have that to deal with. As different traumas go on, children are not able to focus and have a lot of inattention problems.”

Many students are several years behind their grade level. Kindergarten students are not performing well.

“It’s not unusual, out of a class of 26, to send out 16 into Chapter One (a developmental reading and math program),” Tebo said. “And our numbers for our learning disabled program topped out at 15 students. I think we have half a dozen to eight referrals made for students who academically are not thriving and need some extra help.”

These kids have too many problems, she said. “We can’t sit 30 of them together and expect them to learn. Not with what they’ve been through and are going through.”

Children of violent households are coming to school without the social skills required to get along with others, Tebo said.

“And on the playground, the issue of violence is real evident out there. Everything is real reactionary. Everything is “I’m going to get you.” ’Tebo said of the behavior she witnesses during recess activities. “There’s so many threats going on. There’s only way they know how to resolve their anger and that’s through violence.”

Nothing shocks Debra Turnbull anymore. The prevention specialist for Chip Counseling Center has been stabbed by a six-year-old in the hip with a pen and often hears terrifying stories of abuse from emotionless, young faces.

Turnbull dedicates her time to working with children from abusive households, teaching them coping skills and self-esteem building exercises.

“These kids are told they are not a good person on a daily basis and they begin to believe it,” Turnbull said. “They think they are not worthy.”

The lack of positive, realistic role models leaves vulnerable, powerless children looking up to violent super heroes.

“These children are acting out what they are living,” she said, “and, of course, that’s what they see on television. On television, there is no consequences to violence. Children under seven cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.”

Turnbull discovered the power television heroes had upon young children while she facilitated a self-esteem program for a kindergarten class.

There was an especially violent five-year-old who would terrorize children on the playground while he took on the personae of a violent television character. When Turnbull told the boy that the character was fictional and not a real person, the angered student lunged at her and stabbed her in the hip with a pen.

“He couldn’t separate the reality from the fantasy,” Turnbull said. “If you didn’t see it yourself, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Many children act out violently because they don’t have the coping skills.

“A lot of violence comes from not knowing how to communicate what they are feeling,” Turnbull said “Thoughts trigger feelings, which trigger actions.”

There is an overwhelming sense of frustration in children today, the West Side Elementary principal said, adding that absentee parents and dysfunctional families seem to be on a disturbing increase.

“It’s not always the unemployed, not always the lower socio-economic groups. We’re starting to see (domestic violence) infiltrate into all the groups in society, “Tebo said. “That’s scary as well because you wonder where those frustrations are coming from. These are people who are supposed to have the resources as far as employment and money.” But sometimes a full-time job and paid bills don’t stop an abusive situation.

“It’s not just the needy or the criminal who batter,” says Chris Krajewski, project director for the Women’s Resource Center in Petoskey. “Many batterers are employees of the month. They are in every type of profession and every kind of the job.

“Domestic violence is a complicated societal problem,” Krajewski continued. “It has been happening in both good times and bad times. Many of those who say it happens because of unemployment, or because the person was having a bad day or because they were drunk – those are just excuses. They’re excuses we’ve allowed to happen over and over again.”

Regardless of financial stability or status within community, children who act out in school are often indicating a much deeper problem within the family.

“We just have a lot of kids who are hurting,” Tebo said. “So many times when they are referred to the office for a behavioral problem, it’s not just simply disciplinary when you get to the bottom of it. It’s because things are not going well at home.

“I have had a couple students tell me that they had already been raped or that they had been abused, “Tebo continued. “One year I had a girl tell me that she had been raped twice and she was only in fifth grade.”

Most of the stories of abuse Tebo hears involve a father, stepfather or live-in boyfriend.

She remembers one second grade boy with troubles on the playground. Tebo took him into the office and asked how things were going at home.

”He said, ‘Well dad came over and he was hitting mom and my aunt and uncle were there, and they started to help my dad,’”Tebo recounts. “I’m not sure what he saw.”

When she asked him what he did when this occurred, the boy replied – “I just watched.”

Immediately Tebo discussed what he could do if it happened again, how he could stay safe.

“Here we are with these kids trying to make these life and death decisions on their own during the day, then coming to school and trying to learn. It’s incredible, “Tebo said.

“It’s hard to imaging these little people growing up and this is normal to them. And I think this is the biggest part of our problem in school with education because if there isn’t family intervention, how do you change what’s normal for their home life?"

No Time to Lose

The day starts early, 8:05 a.m. to be exact, for Kim Pantak. Sometimes, even before the first bell rings, the Cheboygan Junior High counselor hears knocking at her office door.

The problems vary from name calling and gossiping to pregnancy and battering – but Pantak matches her soothing words and open ears to the upset and often tear-stained faces.

Some days are easier than others, but all are exhausting for Pantak. With an average of 20 students visiting her office each day, Pantak has forgotten what spare time is.

In her second year as a counselor in the Cheboygan Area School system, Pantak’s caseload has decreased considerably from last year, when she was seeing up to 40 kids a day.

The counselor says she is supposed to spend a half-day at West Side and East Side elementary schools, but the overwhelming number of students needing help at the junior high has often gotten in the way.

In the short time Pantak has worked at the junior high, she sometimes feels as if there isn’t a problem she hasn’t had to confront. She has explained menstruation to girls who are already sexually active and attempted to explain to young boys that hitting is not a form of affection.

“There’s such a need for counseling that it’s easy to get burned out if I don’t take care of myself,” she said. “There’s no time to take a break. I usually just make quick notes about what just happened and another kid is at my door.”

Sometimes the problems aren’t as severe as others, but all are important – and often all consuming – to the children involved.

“To adults, they may look at these problems and think they’re nothing,” Pantak said. “But to these kids, their problems are everything.”

To help Pantak with the number of children she sees, Cheboygan Schools Superintendent William Schewe is looking at the possibility of using social workers in the elementary schools. This would allow the workers to deal with children in school and go into homes where abuse is suspected.

The need for two full-time counselors in the elementary schools is a big problem for Schewe – but it is one that leaves his hands tied.

Citing an already stretched budget, Schewe is looking to local agencies and the state to help fund the much needed counselors.

“It’s going to be very difficult to hire someone unless the state changes the way they fund schools,” he said.

Kay Tebo, principal of West Side Elementary School, said the lack of counseling time for her students has left several students without the help they need.

“We don’t see a big difference with our school counselor because we haven’t had the opportunity to have her establish a long term relationship with the kids,” Tebo said. “But the kids who have been in (private) counseling for a year already, there’s a difference.

“And usually by that time, it forces mom and dad to take a look and to get involved in that student’s life,” Tebo continued. “That’s such a big part of it.”

In the four-and-a-half years Schewe has worked as superintendent for Cheboygan schools, he has witnessed a startling increase of children with fetal alcohol syndrome, emotional/behavioral problems and “crack” babies.

More and more students are using violence as a tool to solve problems, Schewe said. The children are not ready for school and many are coming from homes where parents place a low value on education.

“The gap is widening between students with normal backgrounds – who had parents read to them when they were little – and students who come to school without nothing,” Schewe said. “Students who have watched television for five years; students who have been abused.”

Most parents are supportive of teachers and schools and consider education important to their children, Schewe said.

“Parents need to treat children well, be kind and love them,” he said. “Parents need to encourage their kids to ask questions and read books to them.

“Some parents don’t have the energy to answer questions our kids are asking. But they need to.”

Children who are living in violent home environments are often reluctant to talk about abuse, Pantak said.

“Kids who are being abused won’t turn their parents in because they are scared of going to a foster home,” she said. “For some kids, it’s worse to move to another family than to be abused.”

A lot of times families will blame a child, not the abuser, for breaking up the family by telling,” Pantak continued. “That’s what’s so sad.”

To help teach students conflict resolution skills, Pantak, along with a few volunteer teachers, facilitate an eight-week program focusing on self-esteem and how to deal with stress.

“These kids just feel so alone,” Pantak said. “It’s one thing for a counselor to say that they aren’t alone, but it’s different being in a group and hearing other kids with the same problems.”

Something as simple as listening to a child often makes a profound impact upon children in pain.

“The kids who survive in dysfunctional families do because they had one person who cared,” Pantak said. “The more people children have there for them, the more they survive. “It’s the one’s who have no one who don’t make it.”