Delusional Parents or Cops in the Wrong?

A seven year-old boy throws a temper tantrum in his second grade classroom, stomping on a teacher’s foot, battering a school administrator, and tearing the room apart.  The class had to be evacuated by school officials to ensure the safety of the other children, and police and the boy’s mother were called.

So why are the parents of the boy now shopping around for an attorney?  According to them, their child is “sensitive and shy”.  He has, according to his father Richard Smith,  “no mental health problems.  He’s never hurt himself. He’s never hurt anyone else.”  While mother Barbara Smith admits that her son has thrown such tantrums before, and was once suspended for knocking over a desk, she believes she should have been allowed to “defuse” the situation without police intervention.

However, police in Largo, Florida did intervene and after speaking with the boy and other parties involved, decided to implement the Baker Act and send the boy to a mental health hospital for evaluation.  The boy stayed overnight, against the will of his parents, and now the parents are outraged and looking to sue.

The police find themselves in the position of having to defend their decision to use the Baker Act — which gives them the authority to hospitalize people against their will if they believe there’s a likelihood of them injuring themselves or others — against a seven year-old.

Anyone familiar with my work knows how I feel about automatic hero status being conferred upon those in fields like education and law enforcement.  I don’t believe that a certificate or a badge makes a hero, any more than I believe that every parent does what’s best for their child.  So when I read stories like this, I’m not automatically given to one side or the other.

In this case, it’s particularly difficult because there’s a third party involved that has been rendered near-powerless by policies meant to ensure equal access to education.  School districts have little long-term authority over troubled and disruptive students, and what authority they do have is often granted by the parents in the form of an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or other cooperative program.  Parents will often resist their child being placed in “special education” due to the stigma attached, which places an extra burden on non-Special Ed teachers and their students.

So while this child’s behavior issues might have been earlier and better addressed between the parents and the school, it’s understandable to me why the police were called and why they decided to use the Baker Act.  Ideal?  No.   Absolutely necessary?  Probably not.  Logical, needs-based, and an attempt to be preventative?  Yes.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of  “they must be terrible parents” because children with behavior problems can happen to the best-intentioned and most loving parents.  However, a failure to recognize recurring tantrums — especially those that involve things like upturning desks and throwing books — as problematic and unacceptable is dangerous.  It’s dangerous for the child in question, for his future, and for others in his vicinity.

What we call a temper tantrum in a young child is a fit of rage as they grow older.  The lack of impulse and emotional control shown by a screaming, desk spilling, seven year-old is not something he’s likely to grow out of on his own.

I know how easy it is for parents to disbelieve, though.  Children come to them after their bath, sweetly snuggle next to them on the couch, smile and giggle as they tell their stories, and they think there’s just no way. . . no way there’s something wrong with this child.  They hear reports, as the Smiths did from the hospital psychologist, that their child was “polite and friendly” during an evaluation and they think “See?  It was just a moment, just a bad day, something that this or that person provoked”.  They begin to believe that the incident was blown out of proportion — they find fault with others — they begin shopping for an attorney.

What they don’t do is comprehend that their child — the one whose eyes are wide with excitement on Christmas morning, the one who sits on their laps, and loves to ride his bike — is in need of help.  That while he may be sensitive and shy, he may also be unable to control his impulses or his emotions.  That while it’s unlikely any psychologist would categorize a seven year-old  as “mentally ill”,  most would believe that the child could benefit from therapy and behavior modification, and there should be no stigma, for either parents or child,  attached to that.

The worst action that could be taken is action that doesn’t address the needs of the child — such as downplaying his behavior, or attempting to sue the police for trying to get him professionally evaluated — when it was obvious that his own parents believed no such evaluation was necessary.  At what point in a troubled child’s life should a more objective authority than his parents be able to intervene?  At what point is it not enough that the mother can “defuse” the situation — when the situation shouldn’t be occurring in the first place?  Don’t teachers, (particularly those who don’t specialize in special education),  and their  students have a right to teach and learn in a safe, non-threatening environment?

This child needs help.  The police, instead of turning their backs and saying “not our problem”  did what they could to get him some.  Instead of the parents looking to cash in on what they believe was  “a total abuse of police power”, they might better serve themselves, their child, and society by getting their son the help he needs.  Before his childhood tantrums become teen or adult rage.


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  1. If only parents realized that by not allowing kids the consequences from their behavior that they are robbing them of a healthy and happy life. I wish for this kids sake that they would put the effort into getting him healthy rather than justify and blame his behavior on others. As a parent I would be horrified if my kid was exposed to a child with behaviors like that, especially in a learning environment. Has anybody ever heard of a kid acting like this in a Waldorf school? I haven’t but it would be interesting to look at kids that act out and the types of schooling AND homelife they come from.

  2. Sigh… I’m with you on this one, Jane. The police did the best they could do within our broken systems. Emphasis on “broken”.

    Unfortunately, where I live, the kind of evaluation the kid was likely to get at the hospital wouldn’t likely lead to the kind of help the kid and the parents probably need. Chances are, here, the hospital would hand out a prescription for psych meds based on a quickie interview and a referral to counseling the parents might or might not follow up on. (No way to make them, except for the school possibly refusing the kid’s return without it. Often, the parents just put the kid in yet another school.) And if the parents did follow through, the counseling program might or might not have any room for months and months… and then there’s the “if” as to whether the parents could or would find a way to afford it. And, if the program had room and was financially accessible, it might only address the kid’s problems and, usually, it’s not just the kid’s problem… The good news is there ARE a few programs with well-trained staff that really can and do effectively address the whole family system if there’s an ounce of cooperation from the family to be worked with. Bad news is they are grossly underfunded in favor of programs that don’t…

    In just a few more years, without intervention, the same police will likely take this boy to juvenile jail on Criminal Property Damage and/ or Assault/Battery on School Personnel charges… and another largely broken system will have a go at him with a few teeth added that may or may not ensure compliance. And maybe, he and his family will get some of what they need to shift things then if it’s not already too late. More likely, they won’t.

    As far as IEP’s and Special Ed, our schools here are so underfunded that it’s not just parents but also the schools that avoid identifying kids with special needs because the schools can’t afford to give them the services they need and then there’s our huge dearth of qualified Special Ed personnel… and heavier and heavier expectations that the schools will do the parenting and supporting not happening at home, and, in the community. (It’s become trite, but it really does “take a village”… Where are our “villages”? Um, that would be each and all of us, methinks.)

    And then there’s the kids who lose it in some schools, not because of major personal or family problems, but because many little ones are now ludicrously expected to sit Quietly and Focus for hours on end without simple no-brainers like developmentally-appropriate-and-necessary “frivolities” such as friggin’ RECESS!

    Sigh… We ALL need to be howling more and more loudly about making our children our priorities and putting real action behind our howls in our “villages”. This boy will probably grow up. Do we really want him to do so without somehow learning from someone somewhere that responding to life that way is not okay??

    P.S. I fear, here, I’ve seen lots and lots of folks perfectly willing to diagnose even 3 year olds with imaginary friends as psychotic… and who are only too happy to put them on heavy psych meds that do who knows what to the developing brain…

  3. I’m not sure what else the school could have really done. If they had tried to restrain the kid, wouldn’t they have been sued themselves? For the protection of everywhere, they did what was necessary. The parents should know that the point of school is to learn, not to take over their responsibilities.

  4. What struck me most was that this has been an ongoing problem, and the parents still don’t think the child needs anything more than for Mother to come and defuse the situation.

  5. A dozen years or so ago when my kids were in elementary school there was a Dad who came in complaining to the principal about how his kid was always getting in trouble on the playground for picking on the younger kids. He indignantly demanded that the younger kids NOT BE ALLOWED on the playground at the same time as the older ones, so his kid wouldn’t keep getting in trouble!!

    It’s surprising how MANY parents just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that their babies could ever do anything wrong!

  6. The saddest part? The antagonism that now exists between the school and the parents will prevent them from doing any meaningful work together to help this child. The two entities that together spend 24 hours a day with this boy could do so much to evaluate what’s happening and why, perhaps even–gasp!–helping him to learn how to express what he’s feeling so that he doesn’t *have* to spin out of control. Can you imagine feeling so frustrated/angry/unheard/crappy/whatever that the only way you can tell people is by throwing things, hitting and yelling?

    This kid’s in pain. I’m sure a lawyer will help heaps with that.

  7. ugh. it’s so disheartening to hear stories like this especially since i have toddlers that will eventually join the ranks in public school. i can’t afford private school here in LALA land.

  8. Jane, I left a knee jerk response to you on Huffington Post. I’m not sure if I am obliged to apologize or not, especially now that it appears to have been scrubbed.

    It is not easy to come to terms with the possibility that your child has real mental health issues. Once you check your gut for the 400th time, thinking something is just not right with your child – you have to get through the denial. After that…

    It is not easy to get an IEP, it is not easy to find a hospital bed for a child in crisis with mental health issues, it is not easy to find a child/adolescent psychiatrist, it is not easy to find services period!!!

    It sounds like this child has anxiety issues, at a minimum, therefore the temper tantrum. It sounds like these parents are still in denial, afraid and just reacting.

    I think the police may have done the right thing – but look – the child was released the next morning which means there was absolutely not enough time to conduct any kind of meaningful evaluation of the child.

    Do yourself a favor before making long distance judgments about situations with which you are not familiar.

    Contact Pacer Center:
    Contact the Hennepin County Children’s Mental Health Collaborative:

    Do some research about how many child/adolescent mental health providers, especially psychiatrists are in the area, remember to ask what insurance they accept and if they are taking new patients. See how long it takes to get in to see a well respected provider.

    This really isn’t a situation to just react to and blog about. After some research, blog away. And contact Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health, I’m sure they’d welcome your advocacy.


  9. I appreciate your view and individual situation. I was involved with the Osseo and Carver County school districts for a number of years, and my own son had an IEP due to short-term memory problems and ADHD, so I am not speaking from a place of no knowledge of my own.

    An IEP is a cooperative venture between the school and the parents, and many parents have refused them out of the belief that it sets their child apart, or that there is a stigma attached to conditions in the IEP, such as outside counseling and evaluation.

    Funding has been cut in many districts which may have made IEP’s more difficult to get for parents who want them, which seems to be what you are saying, however my experiences with Hennepin County Social Services have largely been positive. I have yet to meet a parent who was unable to find counseling for themselves or their child, regardless of income or insurance status. You may be the first.

    However, my article was not about how difficult it is or is not to find mental health services, nor was it about how well-meaning parents find themselves frustrated by a broken system — it was about one child in Florida whose parents believe no such services were necessary. We do not know what kind of evaluation took place, or the quality of the evaluation, because those records are confidential. The child was released in the morning because that was the extent of the hold.

    The child is obviously in pain. My point was and is that the school has very limited resources and control over that — it is the parents responsibility — yet the parents refuse to believe that their son needs help.

    I understand that your frustration over your individual situation informs your reaction, but again, this was not a story about parents who can’t find the help they need, it was about parents who don’t think help is necessary.

    I would have written quite a different article if the parents were suing over lack of any help being available for the child in question.

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