The Miseducation of Wesley Armstrong

In the world of special ed schools in Broward County, drugs and tough love are the order of the day -- and academics are beside the point

Felicia Armstrong knew her son Wesley was a troubled kid. He'd been that way for most of his ten years. At age three Wesley was kicked out of a day care center for biting other children. Two years later he went on Ritalin after a therapist diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His conduct grades have never been good, but two years ago, as a fifth grader, his problems seemed to escalate. He cursed at school, lashed out at a teacher and hit her in the arm, and hit a girl during a food fight.

To make matters worse, Wesley was by far the biggest kid in his class at Westwood Heights Elementary, a school not far from his home in a working-class neighborhood in west Fort Lauderdale. His size and volatility made for a dangerous mix. Armstrong knew her son needed special help to deal with his problems, but she didn't know where to turn. Then Wesley's teacher told her about the Sunset School, an institution designed for emotionally troubled kids such as Wesley. It was loaded with therapists, had an in-house psychiatrist, and gave specialized care to all its students.

Armstrong, a college-educated Broward sheriff's deputy, started making calls to school board officials to find out how to get Wesley enrolled. Before long, specialists were conducting a battery of psychological tests on her son. They soon declared Wesley "severely emotionally disturbed" (SED), which made him eligible for Sunset.

At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
Sherri Cohen
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
Sunset School takes in only students who've been deemed "severly emotionally disturbed." A lot of them never make it back out.
Larry Singer
Sunset School takes in only students who've been deemed "severly emotionally disturbed." A lot of them never make it back out.
Guidance counselor Larry Benson says academics come second at Sunset. Is that why so many of the students there never get real diplomas?
Larry Singer
Guidance counselor Larry Benson says academics come second at Sunset. Is that why so many of the students there never get real diplomas?
Sherri Cohen

Armstrong's sister, a grade school teacher in Broward, warned her sister not to enroll Wesley at Sunset. She said Wesley would likely never make it back to a regular school. Even if the boy were lucky enough to make it back, he'd be so far behind academically that he'd probably never catch up. But Armstrong, a concerned parent, was also meeting with guidance counselors, school psychologists, and principals. All of them assured her that Sunset was the place for Wesley. There the staff would know how to help him deal with his stormy emotions. His self-esteem would grow by leaps and bounds. And his behavior would improve. Armstrong enrolled Wesley at Sunset in January 1999 to finish the fifth grade there. He's now been at Sunset for 18 months.

But rather than self-esteem, the school has given Wesley -- a solid C student at Westwood Heights -- a failing report card. Rather than therapy he's getting mostly detention and, on occasion, time in a claustrophobia-inducing padded isolation cell. And instead of giving Wesley, who just turned 12 years old, some hope, he's now a thrice-convicted criminal.

Most of the specialized care, meanwhile, seems to come in pill form. The Sunset psychiatrist has prescribed Wesley numerous medications, from tranquilizers to powerful antipsychotic drugs to antidepressants, most of them untested on children. But Armstrong was given little choice: When she refused to fill a new prescription, the school filed a child-neglect complaint with the state.

Armstrong now fears her son is going to wind up semiliterate and unemployable. It's a sentiment with which school board activists and even some officials sympathize. "[Wesley] should be learning. But is he? No. He's probably not challenged at all by the minimum curriculum he's getting," says Lina Gioello, who co-chairs the school district's Exceptional Student Education Advisory Council. "There's no real education going on. He's doing time right now. He's doing time in that school."More and more students, it turns out, are doing time in one of Broward's three so-called SED schools: Whispering Pines in the south, Cross Creek in the north, and Sunset, centrally located just off State Road 7 in Fort Lauderdale. Combined enrollment reached 600 this year. Another 1100 kids have been labeled "emotionally handicapped" but remain in regular schools, where they take special classes. All these emotionally troubled children fall under the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program, otherwise known as special ed.

In 1997 the three SED schools held a total of 412 students, compared with 580 in 1999, roughly a 40 percent rise in two years. Sunset's increase in students, according to district records, was even more dramatic: from 131 to 197, a 50 percent climb.

Stephen Smith, an education professor at the University of Florida, says the very existence of these schools -- which he estimates are used in about half the districts in Florida -- makes it easy to throw difficult kids out of the regular school system and warehouse them elsewhere. "It's the "If you build it, they will come' phenomenon," Smith says. "These schools turn out to be an administrative expedient where administrators can purge their school of troublemakers. If you were a principal and you had a kid always causing trouble, getting into fights, what would you do? You'd send them to an SED school. And that's what's happening."

Smith says if it were up to him, the state would do away with SED schools like Sunset altogether. He's one of many experts who believe that segregated SED schools often ensure that students will fail. Smith doesn't dispute that there are troubled kids, such as Wesley, who need to be taken out of regular classrooms. But he maintains they should be put in special classes at regular schools, where they can at least interact with normal students in the hallway or at lunch. That way, he says, they can try out new, good behavior on normal kids who might actually appreciate it.

Larry Benson, Sunset's guidance counselor, says the ultimate goals of any SED school are to get troubled students the treatment they need, to improve their educational ability, and to mainstream them back into regular schools as soon as possible. But he concedes that's not happening much at Sunset. Benson says that of the 200 or so children enrolled at Sunset, roughly 10 to 15 made it back to regular schools last year.

For those who stay at Sunset, which enrolls students from first through twelfth grade, the results are generally bleak. Last year eight students graduated from Sunset, Benson says. Just three of them got actual diplomas. The other five got "special" diplomas, which signify a low-level curriculum and aren't even accepted by community colleges or the military. About the same number of students who graduated, Benson says, dropped out of school. The percentage of Sunset students who make it to college is "very, very low, less than 10 percent," he says. Of the eight graduates last year, only one is expected to enroll at a community college.

That doesn't seem like a good record for kids who are generally of normal intelligence. But Benson says it's not the school's fault. With their deep emotional problems, he says, Sunset students simply don't have much of a chance at high-level academic success. "Our class goal is not diplomas," he observes. "It's getting them working successfully at a job and vocational training. My responsibility is more toward getting them to succeed than in reaching some grade point average."Wesley lies upside down on the brown leather love seat in his living room, with his size ten feet up in the air where his face should be and his head hanging down, not quite touching the clean, white-tiled floor. For a 12-year-old, Wesley is enormous: five-foot-four and more than 150 pounds. He has a 36-inch waist and wears a man's size-medium shirt.

But here he seems far from the violent troublemaker described by teachers. In fact he comes off as a sweet kid who obeys his mother quickly. He fidgets with a little motorized fan, its whirling, plastic propeller blowing air onto his face. Then his mother carries her new baby, three-month-old Cameron, into the room. Wesley cradles the baby and lays him down on the couch. He coos and gently tickles the baby's tummy. "I love babies," he says. "They're soft and they smell good and they're nice and I love them."

Despite a certain inherent sweetness at home, Wesley becomes a different person at school. He fights and cusses and is defiant. In short he lacks the discipline to work with others and to control his temper.

And that might seem surprising, considering that his mother is a law-enforcement professional who, while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, was a joiner, not a fighter. At Dillard High School, Felicia Armstrong was on the Air Force ROTC and a member of the drill and swim teams. After graduating high school, she attended Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, where she graduated with honors. "I wanted to go to law school, but I got sidetracked," she says. "I fell in love."

She married Wesley Armstrong on June 20, 1988. Eleven days later Wesley Jr. was born. As Felicia began her career in law enforcement, her marriage fell apart. In 1990 she separated from her husband and filed a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence. A year later he disappeared from South Florida. Armstrong was left to raise Wesley on her deputy's salary, without the benefit of child support payments.

Her hope was that Sunset would put an end to Wesley's misbehavior. But it's only compounded his problems.

On a recent day at summer school, Wesley climbed on the bus and sat by himself in the back seat, where he always sits. After a 15-minute ride, he and the other kids got off the bus and Wesley went to the cafeteria to eat his regular breakfast of Trix cereal in chocolate milk before he started his classes.

In the cafeteria he and another boy were talking, and Wesley said the F word loud enough for the cafeteria monitor to hear him. The cafeteria monitor came up and put his hands on him. Wesley hates it when the teachers at Sunset touch him. In fact he hates the teachers at Sunset in general. Wesley jerked away and told the teacher to get his hands off.

The teacher took Wesley to the office of the school's BSO deputy, and from there he was taken to Behavioral Training Class, or BTC, which is Sunset's version of detention. In BTC no academics are taught. Instead Wesley was handed a "behavioral instruction packet," typed-out lessons with topics ranging from getting along with others to accepting blame for bad behavior. He was used to this routine. (In fact school records show that Wesley has spent weeks at a time in BTC.)

After lunch Wesley asked the teacher in BTC if he could go to the bathroom. Wesley says the teacher refused. Defiant as ever, the boy walked right out of the classroom. The teacher pushed a button on the wall, summoning a team of security guards to corral Wesley. This, too, is a timeworn ritual with him. He says he'll "kick and punch and swing and bite and spit" when he sees the safety team coming for him. Which is precisely what he did on this day.

The guards hauled him to a so-called safety room: a padded six-by-seven-foot cell that has steel mechanical doors with automatic locks and a window made of unbreakable glass reinforced with wire. He bounced off the walls for a while before he sat down and waited to get let out. He's usually detained about 30 minutes, but at times he's been in there long enough that he slept on the padded floor. A security guard once told him he'd been in there for an hour and ten minutes. That was a record, Wesley says.

Finally a security guard got him out of the cell (Wesley thinks he was in there for 40 minutes) and took him back to BTC, where he sat down with a packet and waited for the end of the day to come.

And that was how his day at Sunset went.

Now back at home, Wesley starts talking in his deep, hushed voice about Sunset when he actually goes to his classes. He says he works for an hour or two on his lessons, then gets free time on computers. Then he goes to music class, where he plays on computers. Then he goes to lunch and after that he has cooking class. Then, he says, it's pretty much free time.

"I play games on the computer, like basketball and target-shooting games and Resident Evil, where you kill zombies, and Dino Crisis, where you shoot dinosaurs. In Dino Crisis, you find as much guns as you can before time runs out," he says. "Then you get the card key to get in the factory. I saw a raptor and I picked a shotgun, because that's a good gun to kill a raptor with. So I blew his head off."

He says he also likes to download music on the Internet at school. With all the free time, it might seem like Wesley wouldn't mind school. But he says he wants to get out of Sunset as soon as possible. "I want to go to a regular school so I can learn more," he says. "Look at my report card. I don't want to be dumb. It's like I'm in there for my health."

He says he usually tries to behave, but the other kids in his class -- some of whom are as much as three years older than he is -- pick on him and call him fat. "They just like to set me off," he says. "At Westwood Heights they didn't do that to me. At Sunset the kids don't know what stop means. They only understand fighting and hitting." Which sounds a lot like Wesley himself.

The boy's own private therapist, who spoke about his patient on condition his name not be included for confidentiality reasons, concurs with the University of Florida's Smith that assembling troubled kids in one school is a mistake. "The environment over there really just complements his negative behavior," he says. "It's a ruins of an educational process. When in Rome you do as the Romans do. Wesley can't be a tourist at Sunset. These places, they eat you up."

Ironically Wesley says he sometimes purposefully acts out in an attempt to get kicked out of Sunset. His plan, obviously, isn't working.Felicia Armstrong says her first realization that Sunset was going to be a disaster for Wesley came two weeks after he was enrolled, on the day she learned that Wesley had been arrested. His crime: stealing candy from the teacher's desk. Suddenly her ten-year-old son had a police record. "They said it would teach him a lesson," Armstrong recalls. "How are you going to teach him a lesson when you are saying he's not even capable of learning because he's so disturbed? They wouldn't have done that in a regular school. All you're doing is getting him ready for the adult system."

Records show that arresting students is a fairly common occurrence at the school. In a recent seven-month period ending in April, more than 20 Sunset students (accounting for about 10 percent of the school's students) were arrested for offenses ranging from creating a classroom disruption to truancy, theft, drugs, or assault. Guidance counselor Benson declined to discuss arrests at his school, but Kirk Englehardt, spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office, says it's solely the in-house deputy at the school, John McGurgan, who decides to make an arrest. McGurgan declined to comment for this story.

Since Wesley's first arrest (which led to a sentence of community service), he's been arrested twice more on school grounds, for stealing candy again and for threatening another student with a fork he got off the teacher's desk. Rather than curbing Wesley's misbehavior, these scare tactics seemed to make him worse. Suddenly a week couldn't go by without some big incident, a fight, a disruption. What is Wesley getting in the way of treatment? Armstrong wondered.

Wesley himself says he rarely talks to his therapist at the school. More often he's given drugs. Since Wesley enrolled at Sunset, he's been prescribed more than a half-dozen medications by the school's psychiatrist, Dr. Gaetano Defilippo, who is contracted to work 25 hours a week at Sunset. Defilippo, who also maintains a private practice, was on extended vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. The drugs include Ativan, a tranquilizer; Prozac and Zoloft, both antidepressants; Depakote, an anticonvulsant that for unknown reasons has therapeutic effects; and Clonidine, a drug used for patients with high blood pressure that also acts as a relaxant. None of these drugs has been tested for safety and effectiveness in children, according to RxList (www.rxlist.com), a Website that publishes manufacturers' information on prescription medications. And none of them seemed to have any significant effect on Wesley.

"They stand there like, "Is it working, is it working?' Like those pills are little cure-alls that's going to make everything better," Armstrong says. "They just want to drug them all to make them easier to manage, but they don't know what the effect is going to be or what the long-term damage might be, either."

Earlier this year, when the school prescribed Wesley an antipsychotic called Seroquel commonly used to treat schizophrenics, Armstrong finally balked. Not only was she sick of feeding her son pills, but this prescription was going to cost $135 to fill. She simply refused.

Shortly after her refusal, a knock came on the door of her Fort Lauderdale home at 11 p.m. Armstrong got up out of bed only to find an investigator with the Department of Children and Families at her door. The school had filed an abuse complaint against her alleging "medical neglect." DCF found in Armstrong's favor, but she says the message was clear: The school was trying to force psychotropic drugs on Wesley against her will.

"That happens very, very rarely," Benson says. "Most of the time, parents work with us." Sally Creswell, a school board supervisor who oversees programs for all emotionally handicapped students, says the prescriptions are "generally accepted by the community" and adds that school psychiatrists "aren't there just to prescribe medication, they are actively involved in the plans for the kids."

Her boss, Fay Clark, who is in charge of the entire special ed program, says the drugs, while they may not work in every case, have been credited with making lives better, not only for students but also for their families. "You wouldn't believe how grateful some of these parents have been for this program," she says.

Armstrong was far from grateful. She contends that there is no way a psychiatrist who works just 25 hours a week for the school district can effectively treat the dozens of kids he sees at Sunset. Creswell concedes that it's not a lot of time. And other than the school psychiatrist, there aren't many staffers at the school who have backgrounds in medicine or psychology. Neither Lasky nor Benson, for instance, has a background in medicine or psychology. Most Sunset teachers have only special ed teaching certificates and have, Benson concedes, little or no special training in dealing with emotionally damaged children.What most bothers Armstrong is that the one thing Wesley had going for him -- his solid C academic performance at Westwood Heights -- has disappeared completely at Sunset. Armstrong believes it is the lack of academic challenge that is at the root of the school's problems. It's no wonder Wesley gets in trouble, she says: There's little else to do.

A visit to the school bears out her claim. In most classrooms there seems to be little interaction between teachers and students. In the "computer lab" and in music class, for instance, the children play video games while the teacher sits at his own computer, working quietly. The only classes, in fact, where any real teaching seems to be going on are the vocational classes, such as shop and horticulture.

Wesley's sixth-grade report card reveals F's in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies. His final GPA is a dismal 0.11. Why is he failing at Sunset? "When the teachers give me work, they don't explain it to me," Wesley says. "And if I can't understand it, how can I do it? At Westwood Heights, the teacher explained the work, and I understood it."

Somehow, despite his failing grades, Wesley nabbed two awards at the end of last year, one for "outstanding achievement" in social studies and another for "most improved" in reading -- two classes he failed. And at the bottom of that F-ridden report card was a single word typed in capital letters: PROMOTED.

His mother called the school and demanded to know how in the world her son could fail classes and still be promoted. Her persistent questioning uncovered an academic mess -- and a violation of federal laws by Sunset School.

Lasky, Sunset's principal, informed Armstrong that a terrible mistake had been made: Wesley would indeed be promoted; his teacher hadn't counted the work he did. The tests had been thrown out because of his poor conduct and all the time he spent in BTC.

To penalize Wesley academically for his misconduct is known as double jeopardy, and it's against the law. After Armstrong's phone call, Lasky says she went back and added up the tests that were initially disregarded, and a few weeks ago, Armstrong received a different report card from the school. This time Wesley received mostly C's and D's.

"He was doing work, but we weren't giving him credit for it," Lasky says. "The whole year, they screwed up. I don't know why it happened this way. I don't know how it fell through the cracks."

But double jeopardy wasn't the only broken law in Wesley's case. At SED schools any decision to promote a student must be made in what is called an Individual Education Plan meeting between the parent and various school administrators. Armstrong, however, was never consulted. Both Lasky and Benson concede that this oversight never should have happened, but neither can provide an explanation as to why it did.

With 11 years in SED programs, Benson says he's heard criticisms like the ones being leveled by Armstrong before. But he insists that the root problem in these cases is that the student or the parent, or both, simply refuses to try to succeed at Sunset. "For students to be successful, they have to have a willingness to learn," he stresses. "They must have the skills necessary to learn, and they must deal with the emotional disorders that brought them here. If a child is hurting, he can't learn."

Nothing is more important, he stresses, than the parental "buy-in." If the parent doesn't believe in the school, then the child likely won't get much out of it. "And you have to understand that a lot of our parents come from dysfunctional places themselves." The bottom line, he says, is that parents are often in denial about their child's problem. In these cases it becomes a power struggle between the kid and the school or, worse, between the entire family and the school. "They don't want to face what their issue is; it's painful for them," Benson says.Armstrong counters that she did believe in Sunset at first. It was she, after all, who instigated the process that sent Wesley there. But now she wants him out. She's wanted him out, off and on, since that first arrest, only two weeks after Wesley enrolled. The reason she's been unable to get him out is simple: The school doesn't want to let him go. The truth is that, once the SED label is applied to a child, it's very difficult to remove, especially in Wesley's case, because his conduct and grades have plummeted at Sunset.

Armstrong says she's tried to convince principals at nearby schools to accept Wesley, but they won't because of his record at Sunset.

Benson says that Armstrong simply needs to schedule a meeting with school officials to talk. But Armstrong says she's had numerous meetings with school officials, and they simply won't consider allowing Wesley to leave the school, claiming that he won't be able to function elsewhere. Armstrong says she knows he's not ready for a regular classroom; she just wants him to be in one of the special classrooms for "emotionally handicapped" students in a mainstream school.

Armstrong is left with only one option: due process. It's the system whereby a parent takes his or her grievance to the state, which then appoints a hearing officer, who makes a decision on the matter. But Armstrong is reluctant to initiate this process. For one thing she'll have to hire an attorney, which will be costly, and she figures the school board will win any mediation process anyway. The board has Wesley's file at Sunset that shows he's been a disaster there, after all.

UF's Professor Smith says due process should be avoided if at all possible. "It's a nasty process that pits the parent against the school board," he says. "Sometimes it works for parents, but often it's not good for anybody."

Armstrong is also mulling other options, like home schooling. Anything, she says, to try to save her son from a school she believes is destroying him.

She fears it may already be too late.

"This kid is lost because they have buried him in paperwork and documentation at that school," she says. "I can't let them do this to Wesley. Not while I'm alive. But I'm not blinded to Wesley's problems. Now it's gone so far that Wesley is the only one now who can help Wesley. I just hope a light comes on in his head and he turns himself around."

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