When Children Exhibit Early Signs of At-Risk Behavior.

Joel Eisenberg

A tough but necessary consideration.

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Attribution: The following words are based on my personal and professional perspective as one who has worked with severely at-risk children and young adults for over ten years and has seen signs early, signs that should never be ignored. Further, my training includes extensive coursework in Abnormal Psychology, and numerous research papers of which I have authored. My license was in Special Education, and I taught moderate to severely challenged students.

I am convinced some tendencies toward abuse — some — can be curbed by reporting visible antecedent or otherwise telling behaviors of young adults to the proper authorities as early as possible, even if pressured by certain factions not to.

“Kids will be kids” is never an acceptable response.

For the record, most of my students of whom I am aware have improved within the system and have gone on to create constructive lives for themselves, including raising families of their own with stable partners.

However, most any special education teacher with their eyes and ears open will see signs early from those who seem as though they will make no such progress. Maybe they’ll surprise you. Maybe they won’t. Regardless, it’s time to bring this issue to the forefront and become that much more conscientious to the job at hand.

For a 10-year period I taught severely at-risk children and young adults within both the New York and California school systems. Though my Bachelor’s degree in Special Education formally allowed me to specialize in Mild to Moderate Disabilities, as opposed to Moderate to Severe, I learned quickly those were only labels, and ineffectual labels at best. I was a man in a field that hired predominantly women at the time. Though my two-and-a-half years of prerequisite course work in the field of Abnormal Psychology proved relatively meaningless, I was a commodity to my schools by virtue of my sex.

And so most of the rough students, invariably as a matter of profiling, came to me.

The first point I want to make is until you work with some of these students, you simply cannot know what their lives have been like.

Reading online about the history and upbringing of abusive men and women informed this article. I related to some of that information through my students who have lived it.

I taught predominantly high school-aged kids during my tenure. Some of the male students before and/or since have been arrested for issues related to physical abuse. Some of the female students before and/or since have been arrested for issues related to physical abuse.

Most of these students were born into violent families. Several of these students witnessed murder within those families. Most did not have either a positive father-figure or a mother-figure. Many belonged to street gangs. My students to whom this applies were Caucasian, African American and Hispanic.

I was assaulted by a student; you can read about that story here. In that same story, which focuses on another student of mine who died in a shootout with cops, I delve more into the psychology behind some of these kids.

I left the field permanently in 2005. I stayed in touch with a few students for a time until I had to file a cease and desist against one for email fraud and phone threats. On a call this student once made that I answered, he boasted of having impregnated “someone against her will.”

I reported it all to the authorities, all those years since I left the field. I looked back and all the signs were there. I have also kept in touch with friends still in the profession, who have informed me nothing has changed.

The following are true-life examples of former students of mine who either did not make it or were not expected to make it. I will not use their names in this piece.

  • N, a male, was diagnosed manic-depressive with suicidal ideologies. He was institutionalized in his early-20s for beating his father, eventually returned home and threatened to beat his grandmother. From there, I lost my point of contact.
  • R, another male, loathed women. He described himself as a "real man" who could only trust men. “If I want to trust a woman,” I overheard him once say to another student, “I’ll do so. If I want to beat a woman, I can do that as well.” I filled out an incident report and met with the school officials. The student was later suspended for an incident where he was caught trying to act on his threat.
  • P, a male, was the ringleader of a "party" held at night in the principal’s office. The school was outdoors, on a ranch, and most of the students lived in group homes. The morning the teachers arrived to work, we were beckoned into an emergency meeting and told what had happened. Drugs and other inappropriate paraphernalia were strewn about the office; some furniture was broken. P was suspended and never returned to school. I have no idea what happened to him. The others were suspended, cooperated in an investigation, and were allowed back after two weeks.
  • M, a female, physically abused another female student who admitted to encouraging it. They were both under 18. They both said they enjoyed it, and afterwards became a couple.

I can go on.

I have worked with students who have killed themselves, others who have threatened to abuse or kill others, and still others who I’ve heard had amassed substantial police records since their high school days.

Today, students around the country are returning to school in the midst of our current pandemic, including those who are troubled.

If you are a teacher today, unfortunately your other responsibility is to look for signs such as the above. You must be vigilant that the students with whom you are presently working do not represent threats either inside or outside of the school environment.

This is part of the job. Many of these students do not belong in an organized school setting, and yet there they remain. For whatever reasons — political, budgetary — many will not receive the help they require.

Abuse is among the most serious threats where warning signs are present and ignored, as represented by those who have fallen through the cracks and did not improve with years of therapy and specialized education as their behaviors were tolerated early.

What I am expressing to you is no different than the plight of a school shooter. We find out later that the signs were there, frequently on troubling social media posts, at other times from friends or associates who knew them and stayed quiet.

To be clear, I am in no way lumping all “at-risk youth” together. As I mentioned earlier, most of my students of whom I am aware have made constructive lives for themselves. One, a major success story, is now a school psychologist.

I am simply saying this: We all need to be vigilant, especially during this volatile era where emotions and frustration are heightened, schooling is largely behind a computer, and temptation is strong to inappropriately lash out. If we notice signs of overt agitation or violence in anyone within our circles, it is our responsibility to monitor those signs before they escalate. For parents and teachers particularly, honest communication with each other is imperative.

To my last point, I want to address the male readers of this article, those who do not teach, or who consider themselves too busy to bother, or who simply do not pay attention. Men most of all do not know the trauma of an abuse victim. We cannot unless such abuse has happened to us. If it has, to any male reading this, then you understand better than most.

I am very simply calling upon you — as I am doing with myself as a man — to be better and help spare our loved ones from such violence and potential lingering and life-altering trauma.

Two close female friends of mine have been violated. One tried taking her life and was thankfully not successful. The other married a friend of mine years later, who has since passed, but she is fine on her own for now.

Regardless, we need to notice the warning signs and report them before they escalate. This is obviously not a fool-proof action, but it is an honest effort to curb the violence when all too often we ignore the early signs.

Furthermore, we are entering a new year … from a horrific year. Working with troubled kids, whether as a teacher or even a volunteer, can make allthe difference in their lives moving forward.

Think about it.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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