Can Anyone Hear Me?

Hillendale High School serves students with chronic behavior issues who have been expelled from their former schools. The school's principal, Mr. McCree, leads with an iron hand in a velvet glove'through tough love. What he offers through firm caring, he lacks in instructional leadership. A new student in desperate need of help brings issues of confidentiality, communication, and a teacher's need for clarity to the front burner.

Derek and his mother meet with the principal at Hillendale High School, a charter high school for students not successful in traditional high school settings.

See a profile of Hillendale High School below:

It was Friday, November 5, and Derek was to begin classes on Monday. Mrs. Curlin had arranged a meeting with the principal, Mr. McCree, in order to discuss some of Derek’s history and facilitate a fresh start for her son. She wanted to believe that he was finally on the right track and that the worst was behind them.

Derek was tired of schools, tired of fresh starts, and tired of his mother. He was seventeen and pretty sure he didn’t want to be in school at all anymore, but his other options—work or jail—were even less attractive. So it looked like he was going to Hillendale. As they walked into Mr. McCree’s office, Derek checked out.

Mr. McCree: Mrs. Curlin, Derek, it’s good to meet you.

Anne: Nice to meet you, too. Please, call me Anne.

Mr. McCree: Okay, Anne. Why don’t you have a seat. Derek, we’re really looking forward to having you here at our school.

(Derek does not make eye contact.)

Anne: We’re excited for Derek to be here. This is just what he needs…a brand new start, right honey?

Derek: (No response).

Mr. McCree: Is that right Derek? How do you feel about coming to Hillendale?

Derek: (No response).

Anne: Derek…

Derek: Whah? Yeah, yeah. Uh, that’s right.

Anne: I think Derek’s still a little tired. He’s had a lot going on recently and that’s something that we want to talk about. We thought it might be good if you knew a little about Derek’s history and why he’s here. Derek really wants to get off on the right foot.

Mr. McCree: We also want Derek to be successful, and it would be helpful to talk about what brought him here. Although I’ve read his file, I would like to hear Derek talk about what’s been going on this past year.

Derek: (No response).

Anne: As you know, Derek just completed a stay at a rehabilitation facility. His father and I feel like he’s finally overcome his problems with drugs. We’re very proud of him.

Mr. McCree: With good reason.

Anne: When Derek left the hospital…

Derek: Mom, don’t…

Anne: Derek, I think Mr. McCree needs to know about this. (To Mr. McCree) Can we speak confidentially? Derek doesn’t really want the other students and teachers to know about this.

Derek: They’ll think I’m a freak.

Mr. McCree: Whatever you want to tell me is just between us. Derek, nobody else needs to know.

Derek: Whatever.

Anne: When Derek left the hospital his therapist recommended that he continue taking antidepressants. The doctors at the hospital feel that Derek is clinically depressed and that this depression led to and intensified his problems with substance abuse.

Mr. McCree: (Nodding and listening attentively.)

Anne: So Derek is going to a counselor twice a week, and he is going to be continuing with the medication. Helping Derek deal with his depression is really our top priority. Academics are important to both his father and me, but our primary goal is for Derek to stay clean and get healthy. We wanted you to know about this so you could support Derek, but we really would prefer that his teachers not be given this information. There is still a great deal of prejudice with regards to depression and…

Mr. McCree: Say no more. I understand completely. I’ll do everything I can to help Derek through this. And Derek, this will just stay between us. You have my word.

Derek: Whatever.

Anne: Thank you. We really appreciate your help.

Mr. McCree: No problem. Is there anything that I do need to make Derek’s teachers aware of? Any concerns regarding his hearing impairment? Does he need any specific support services that aren’t included in his IEP? We did get the IEP from his previous school, but we’ll need to update that as soon as possible.

Click here to view Derek’s IEP.

Anne: Derek has moderate hearing loss, somewhere around 65 decibels. He can usually hear what is said in one-on-one conversations as long as the person is speaking loudly and clearly. But when Derek wears his hearing aids, he can hear almost everything. So he should be fine. His hearing problems have affected his speech to some degree, but as long as his teachers are aware of that, I think they can treat him pretty much like any other kid.

Click here to see the audiologist’s report.

After Derek and his mother left, Mr. McCree started thinking about the promise of confidentiality he had just made. He usually preferred to foster an atmosphere of open communication, but in this case it seemed discretion was warranted. Derek seemed like a good kid who just needed love and support. Hillendale would turn this kid around. He was sure of it. Even so, Mr. McCree decided to get online and find some more information about teens, drug abuse, and depression.

See links to some of the websites Mr. McCree found below:

Websites on Hearing Impairments

About Deafness/Hard of Hearing: http://deafness.miningco.com/

American Academy of Audiologists: http://www.audiology.org

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: http://www.asha.org/

Deaf Resource Library: http://www.deaflibrary.org/

National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/

Animated American Sign Language Dictionary: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/

Sam Crawford, a social studies teacher at Hillendale High School, struggles to get Derek involved in his class.

Sam Crawford sat in the back of the room listening to the student presentations. The assignment called for the students to work in groups of three to research and present oral reports on historical figures who changed the course of the twentieth century. Sam had given the students total freedom in choosing their subjects, and, as a result, the first two groups chose athletes—Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant—with questionable historical significance. Sam was beginning to regret granting the students so much freedom.

As the third group took their place at the front of the room, Sam glanced over at Derek. His head was on his desk, and he looked like he had fallen asleep. Derek had arrived at his class once again without his hearing aids. During the presentation on Jimi Hendrix, the latest historical figure to alter the course of the twentieth century in the eyes of his students, Sam’s mind began to wander:

…this was yet another instructional day that was a complete waste for Derek…this kid definitely needed some help…without his hearing aids, Derek just checked out…this hearing loss was preventing him from making any academic progress as well as interacting with his peers…why was Derek even at this school?…even though the kid had been arrested and convicted of possession of controlled substances, he did not seem to have any behavioral disorders…he wasn’t violent, aggressive, or confrontational like the standard student at Hillendale…on the contrary, Derek was quiet, somewhat withdrawn, and rather shy…Derek’s hearing impairment had to be the root of all his problems…it was isolating him from his teachers and his peers…Derek needed to be at a school for students with hearing impairments…he needed some specialized help…the books that I’ve been reading on hearing loss and deafness stress the importance of both aural and manual approaches for students with hearing impairments…if Derek was not using his hearing aid, he needed some other way to communicate…maybe Derek would benefit from an interpreter-someone who could sign…if Derek learned to communicate with sign language, he would not need to rely solely on a hearing aid and lip reading…sign language could make Derek feel more included…

Strains of “Purple Haze” blaring from the tinny speakers of a portable radio jolted Sam back to his classroom. He looked over at Derek. Not even Hendrix could rouse the boy.

Sam talks to Mr. McCree, the school principal, about Derek.

During his planning period, Sam headed down to the principal’s office. He wanted to talk about the possibility of getting some special services for Derek. For the most part, Sam liked Mr. McCree, as did most of the students at Hillendale. Mr. McCree was a strong advocate for the kids, and as a result, many perceived him as something of a father figure. Mr. McCree believed that with a little love and a lot of discipline these kids would be fine. It was almost as if Mr. McCree thought that he was principal of a school of regular kids, when, in reality, the students at Hillendale were anything but regular. All of them had been expelled from traditional high schools for various reasons. Many of them desperately needed specialized instructional programs-something that Mr. McCree, in one of his most significant shortcomings as an educator, seemed reticent to acknowledge.

The door to Mr. McCree’s office was open. Sam knocked lightly on it.

Mr. McCree looked up. “Hey Sam. What’s up?”

“I’d like to talk to you about Derek Curlin,” Sam said.

“Sure, have a seat. What’s going on?”

“Well,” Sam began, “for starters, he keeps forgetting to wear his hearing aid to my class. And as a result he can’t participate in anything we’re doing. I don’t think he’s learning a thing.”

“Huh. Maybe I’ll have a talk with Derek and see if I can find out what’s going on with the hearing aids. And if I need to, I’ll give his mom a call and see if she can’t help us out.”

“That sounds good, but I’m not sure it’s going to make much difference. For some reason Derek doesn’t seem to want to wear the hearing aids. I was thinking that maybe we should look into some other alternatives for him. I’ve been reading some books about hearing impairment and they all recommend manual communication.”

“Sign language?” Mr. McCree replied. “Sam I think you’re overreacting. As I understand it, Derek’s hearing loss is not that severe, and the hearing aids do the trick. I’m not sure if he even needs them when he’s talking directly with one person. I really don’t think we need to do anything extreme. He’s only been here a week. Give him a little time. He’s just like most of the other kids here. He’ll buy into our program, and I’ll bet you the hearing aids won’t even be an issue after a while. But in the meantime I’ll talk to him this afternoon and see if I can get some of this straightened out.”

Sam could feel his frustration beginning to boil over. He thought it best to excuse himself. As he walked back to his room his anger intensified. He could not believe that Mr. McCree refused to acknowledge Derek’s unique instructional needs. Derek wasn’t like any other kid. He was practically deaf, and no one was doing a thing to help him.

Before Sam reached his room he ran into Mrs. Hall, the school’s special education teacher.

“Sam, I’m glad I ran into you. I’ve been looking at Derek Curlin’s records, and I think we all need to sit down and meet about his IEP. He’s got some goals that we are going to need to address.”

“Good luck getting McCree to participate,” Sam replied.

“What?” Mrs. Hall questioned. “Have you already talked to him about Derek?”

“I just left his office. I told him that Derek’s not wearing his hearing aids to my class. He just sits in there with his head on his desk. McCree just said not to worry about it, that Derek will be fine.”

“Wow,” said Mrs. Hall, surprised by the entire exchange.

“The kid can’t hear,” Sam continued. “No one seems willing to acknowledge that. We need to do something. Maybe sign language is an option. I think we should look into finding an interpreter.”

“I don’t know, Sam. I don’t think Derek even signs. And I’m not sure we would want to start something like that this late in the game.”

“He’s completely checked out. I would be too if I couldn’t hear what was going on.”

“Yes, but sign language seems pretty extreme. I don’t think that’s what he needs. You know he’s got some pretty big reading problems. He’s reading at about a fourth grade level. I would imagine that’s contributing in a big way to his frustration.”

“Isn’t it common for kids with hearing impairments to have trouble reading?” Sam questioned.

“Yes,” answered Mrs. Hall, surprised by Sam’s persistence. “But I’m not sure that his hearing impairment is the source of the problem. I think if we got some resource help to work on his reading, he’d do a lot better in your class.”

“The reading problem doesn’t explain why he won’t participate in oral activities,” Sam said, but the ring of the bell and the ensuing wave of students brought an end to the conversation. Sam continued toward his room, feeling worse about Derek’s situation than ever before.

Sam calls Mrs. Curlin to talk about Derek’s situation.

The next day Derek returned to Sam’s class without his hearing aid. Obviously, Mr. McCree’s little chat hadn’t worked. Sam was beginning to feel like he was the only one concerned about what was going on with this kid. He decided that he needed to talk to Derek’s mother. He would call later in the day.

Mrs. Curlin: Hello.

Sam: Mrs. Curlin, this is Sam Crawford, Derek’s social studies teacher.

Mrs. Curlin: Oh, yes. Hello.

Sam: Mrs. Curlin, I was wondering if you had a moment to talk about Derek.

Mrs. Curlin: Sure, what’s going on?

Sam: Well, Derek hasn’t been wearing his hearing aids to my class. Consequently, he hasn’t been able to participate in most of our activities.

Mrs. Curlin: Yes, that would be a problem. I’ll talk to Derek about that tonight.

Sam: Well the thing is, I’m wondering if the problem can be fixed that easily.

Mrs. Curlin: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Sam: I’m wondering if with Derek’s level of hearing loss he wouldn’t benefit from something like sign language. His hearing disability is isolating him from his peers and teachers. He really doesn’t interact with anyone.

Mrs. Curlin: Mr. Crawford, I appreciate your concern, but we’ve already addressed and corrected Derek’s hearing impairment with the hearing aids. I think he is still adjusting to his new surroundings. I know that he can be difficult, but if you could just give Derek a little more time, I’m sure that his behavior will improve.

Sam: But Derek’s primary disability is a hearing impairment and we’re not even providing him any services for that. Hillendale is required by law to provide Derek services for his disability.

Mrs. Curlin: Derek is not attending Hillendale to receive services for his hearing impairment. Derek is at your school because of his problems with substance abuse.

Sam: But don’t you think that Derek’s drug problems could have something to do with the isolation he feels because of his deafness?

Mrs. Curlin: No, Mr. Crawford, I don’t. I really do appreciate your concern for my son, but I want to assure you that Derek’s father and I are on top of his situation. He really just needs a little time and understanding right now. If you have any other issues, perhaps you should take them up with Mr. McCree.

Sam: I’ve already tried that. Honestly, I thought if I talked to you, we might be able to put the wheels in motion a little more quickly.

Mrs. Curlin: Again, I appreciate your concern, but we’ve got the situation well in hand.

Sam: Alright, Mrs. Curlin. Thank you for your time.

Mrs. Curlin: Anytime, Sam. And thanks again for your concern.

Sam hung up the phone feeling like he was the only one that really understood what was going on with Derek.

Mr. McCree stops by Sam’s classroom to talk about his phone conversation with Mrs. Curlin.

The day after talking to Mrs. Curlin, Sam sat in his classroom during his planning period, grading quizzes. Mr. McCree appeared at Sam’s door. He had been escorting the police officers and their dogs through the school on the weekly drug search and decided to stop and speak to Sam.

“Sam,” Mr. McCree called from the doorway.

“Yes?”

“I called Mrs. Curlin yesterday. I understand you beat me to it.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Sam was beginning to regret what he had done. He had not followed protocol, and now he was being called on it. “I wanted to touch base with Mrs. Curlin about the hearing aids…” Sam and Mr. McCree were interrupted by a racket in the hall. It sounded like the drug dogs had found something.

Derek waits for his parents in Mr. McCree’s office.

Derek waited in the principal’s office for his mother and father. He was not surprised. Deep down, he knew that this was going to happen all along. He had really wanted to stop using, but it was too difficult. He only felt comfortable when he was high. He hated the pills the doctors wanted him to take, and he hated his counselor. So this was probably it. He was going to get kicked out of another school, and he was probably on his way back to rehab. God, he hated it when his mom cried. It was just too much—all these people wanting to fix him, but none of them actually knowing how. He heard his folks coming down the hall. He reached up and took off his hearing aids. Time to check out.

Sam vents to his colleagues – and his boss.

As the last student exited his class, Sam dropped into his rolling desk chair, laced his fingers behind his head and rocked back and forth. Today had been a tough day, culminating with the news during third block that Derek been kicked out. Sam had seen many students come and go from Hillendale, but Derek’s expulsion struck him as a particular failure of their school and its mission to provide “individualized instruction.” They had done nothing for this student except drop him into the classroom and then completely ignore the fact that he had a major disability. McCree had blinders on if he truly believed a feel-good approach and time were all that was needed. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. He had to do something. Swiveling in his chair, he turned to his computer. If nothing else, he needed to vent.

See a copy of the email Sam wrote to Derek’s other teachers below:

Scott McCree was angry. He prided himself on his close relationships with students and staff and he couldn’t help feeling like he’d been stabbed in the back when his secretary silently handed him a copy of Sam’s email which had been placed anonymously in his box. So he was an idiot, was he? Sam didn’t know the first thing he was talking about. Sometimes being a principal felt like being the parent of several unruly children, and he wasn’t referring to the students, either. He’d made the decision to build a relationship of trust with Derek, and he still believed that, given time, Hillendale would have worked for him. He didn’t need to explain his every decision to his staff; sometimes they just had to accept his judgment.

Special needs kids were shortchanged and ignored? Then how to explain Hillendale’s � and McCree took credit for this � success rate? McCree loosened his tie as he felt his blood pressure rise. He was pretty sure this was teacher insubordination; at the very least he’d need to write Sam up.

He picked up the phone. “Nancy, I need to talk to Ann Cafferty in HR over at the central office.”