Anger and Disappointment
The Johnson* family moved to West Milford confident their children would receive a good education in a safe place. They’ve been sorely disappointed. Their daughter Ellen, who suffers OCD and panic attacks, has endured a lot.
The Johnsons filed a notice of harassment, intimidation or bullying which was found “unsubstantiated.” They have appealed that determination and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights against the West Milford Board of Education.
The West Milford School District did not respond to several phone messages.
Ellen’s mother shared her story with the West Milford Messenger to focus attention on the purported lack of mental health training of special education teachers, bad district decision making and failures of oversight.
First encounter with special education
In the year after Ellen was diagnosed with OCD and panic attacks, she was placed in a special education class. According to her mother, the teacher had inadequate training in how to deal with mental illness and was verbally abusive, despite 20 plus years of teaching experience. Ellen reported that the teacher once told her “my day was fine until you came in here.”
“Since that point, we have been advocating for more mental health services to help her...what has occurred is the exact opposite,” said Johnson.
Ellen was moved to another special education class. In 2020, COVID hit and Ellen struggled. She became depressed and was admitted for six months to an intensive outpatient partial hospital program, which included individual, family and group therapy. She also received home instruction at the West Milford Library in the afternoons.
The hospital program recommended Ellen be referred to a therapeutic day school for the following year. The district insisted they could provide the needed services, according to Johnson.
When Ellen returned to school she was repeatedly teased and “tormented” by a boy in her class.
“The boy would scare me almost every day. He found it funny to yell for no reason ‘cause he knew it bothered me. .. He would then make fun of me more when I got upset. I tried not to cry in front of him, but I couldn’t help it. He called me a faker and a crybaby. He was so mean I couldn’t take it any more and the teachers couldn’t control him either. He broke things in the classroom and threw things. I would ask to go to guidance and then I would wait forever to talk to anyone. I can’t trust anyone anymore. I felt so trapped in school-- it’s not safe anymore.”
Promises of change never materialized
After meetings with the school, the Johnsons felt confident changes would be made: Ellen and the boy who was tormenting her would be separated. “We talked it up all summer that this year would be different,” said Johnson. “Ellen was actually excited to be going to school.” Within two weeks, the Johnsons noticed something wasn’t right. Ellen’s panic attacks, sleep issues and OCD triggers returned.
The school had placed Ellen in a classroom with four other children; two of whom had severe behavioral issues including the boy who had tormented her the previous year.
When she called the school to find out what was going on, Johnson determined that “they just changed the title of the class; nothing else. Our daughter was still in the same class with the same peers” without any of the additional support the school had promised.
Ellen’s tormentor told her to “Go ahead and kill yourself already.” The boy reportedly told the teacher to, “F... off” and threw books off his desk.
Negligence on the part of the district:
“Ellen never did well in this classroom because she should have never been placed there in the first place,” said Johnson. “By treating her mental illness as a behavior problem and not as a disability, it goes against our daughter’s basic civil rights as a person. Our daughter constantly felt misunderstood by her teachers and peers and she continued to regress in her academic skills.”
In October, the Johnsons texted the principal about their concerns, saying the atmosphere was not healthy for Ellen.
A few days later Ellen called, crying uncontrollably. Hiding in the bathroom after a fight in her classroom, Ellen was frightened and having a panic attack.
Ellen saw doctors over the next few days and was placed on home instruction for the third time. Her parents again asked that their daughter be referred to a therapeutic day school. “Her current classroom was in constant chaos, and for a child with panic disorder, that feels very unsafe,” said Johnson.
No concern for Ellen’s well-being, but is she ordering a yearbook?
Despite a recommendation from the school’s appointed psychiatrist that Ellen be placed in a therapeutic day school, the Johnsons have been unable to make that happen for their daughter.
The district hasn’t called to check in on Ellen, but they did send an email asking whether she’d like to order her yearbook.
*Editor’s Note: The family’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.