An Ugly Episode in a Michigan School
An exchange of letters between Penny W______ and Jordan Riak, March 2001

Letter from a Michigan mother to Project NoSpank
March 3, 2001

I live in Michigan. My daughter is 15. She attended public school until Dec. 11, 2000. She was involved in a fight and I was told by the principal that he would not allow her back in to school until she attended a program for teens. I was told this was the only option. My daughter had not been in any trouble with the law, no court appearances, nothing. There had been incidences of swearing at school, and the fight. I placed my daughter in the program January 5th of this year, I felt like a desperate parent thinking it would help. She attends from 8:30 a.m. - 2:45 p.m. each day. They explained to me that they have academic classes, counseling and experiential treatment. They explain that if they need punishment, a "work project" will be assigned, and that they supply all the necessary clothing for the weather, and if the student refuses the clothing, they go out and check on the student every 15 min. to half hour.

In the beginning it was okay. Now I am horrified. She has been placed outside from 9:00 a.m. -2:45 p.m. in extremely cold temperatures and below zero wind chills. This has went on for a week. The public schools in our area kept kids in because of the wind chills. When I expressed my concern the "teacher" tells me that it is part of "treatment" and I can't come "rescue" her from the program. Now the teacher calls me and tells me they will call the police on my daughter because they found her sitting in a swing instead of working on her work project which was sweeping snow off a track.

My daughter said she physically could not do it anymore, her feet felt like she was walking on knives. When I called the school again they told me it was my daughters choice to go outside. I get a nice story from the teacher. My daughter was hit in the mouth by a teacher, she came home with a cut, swollen lip. When I asked them about it they ignored me. The counselor tells me I am too patient as a parent. I told them I would remove my daughter and now they tell me it is mandatory one year attendance. I was not told this when I placed her there. Now they tell us they will not give us a referral to place her back in to a public school. I know our story does not sound bad but it is snowballing fast. Each day is a nightmare. I need help to prevent any more emotional and physical harm to my daughter.


Riak's response to Penny
March 5, 2001
Dear Penny,

Here's my advice. Immediately do the following:

  1. Have your daughter write down every detail she remembers of the relevant events at school. Make copies.

  2. Bring your daughter to your family physician and have her lip and her feet examined. Have her explain to the doctor what was done to her. Get a copy of the medical report. Even if, in your opinion, medical attention isn't required, keep in mind, you don't know that; that's for a doctor to decide. Also, you want to be prepared if the school tells you, at some later date, "Really, Ms. W___, aren't you blowing this thing out of all proportion? If it were such a big deal, why didn't your daughter see a doctor?"

  3. Notify child protective services and report the alleged abuse. Go to them if they won't come to you. Get a copy of their report.

  4. Notify the police. If they tell you to call child protective services, tell them you have already done that. Keep a record of the time you called and the name of the person to whom you spoke.

  5. Contact a good lawyer--one who does not practice in your town, does not have children in the same school district where your daughter attends and one who does not do business with the school district.

  6. Keep a diary of all meetings, phone calls and conversations, and make photocopies of all correspondence and documents. Store these records in a safe place.
Here's what we will do. We'll send copies of your letter and our reply to every member of the Michigan legislature and invite them to email you directly. Perhaps they'll have additional or better advice.

We suggest you read "ABUSE IN SCHOOLS IS OUT!" at

Please let us know the outcome, and don't hesitate to ask if there is anything more you'd like us to do.

Jordan Riak,
Exec. Dir., Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education
Editor of Project NoSpank

Penny's second letter
March 5, 2001
Dear Mr. Riak,

Thank you so much for replying to me. I did take my daughter to the doctor. Thank goodness she was not frostbitten. I feel like I am in the twilight zone. I tried last week to remove my daughter from this school, I was unsuccessful. The mental health counselor said it is best for her to remain. If she misses school she will be considered truant. (She has tried to call me and has had the phone shut off, when she was frustrated she then walked to find a phone they had her picked up for truancy and she received a ticket for skipping school.) I am stuck, our school district says she must complete this program to return.

Now I am being told that this "treatment program" will not give her a referral for any public school. I am shocked that Family Independence Agency supports this program. It would do me no good to contact protective services. Ironic, a agency that is suppose to help children supports this treatment. As of Friday, March 2, I am told that my daughter will have a minimum of a year in this program and that when she returns Monday to school she still has 5 days of outside work projects.

Tomorrow brings a new nightmare, I am sure. The link you sent is very informative. Not a surprise that several items on your list has already happened to my daughter.. Again, thank you for listening
Penny W______

Riak's second letter to Penny
March 12, 2001
Dear Penny,

I have to resist the urge to tell you what to do. In the end, you are going to make your own decisions. Good ones, I trust. The best I can do now is tell you how your situation looks from my perspective. I am a parent and a grandparent, and there is not the slightest doubt in my mind about how I would react were I in your shoes, and a child of mine were in the spot your daughter is in.

First, you have to understand a few things about the people you are dealing with--these so-called educators who have control of your daughter.

I use the word "control" here in the literal sense. Control is what they do. It's all they do. I doubt if they know much about education, but they clearly know a lot about control. They control your child as surely as if she were a convicted felon serving a prison sentence in a maximum security institution. Furthermore, they seem to be controlling you. Controlling others, disempowering them--not helping and empowering them--is at the heart of their game. That isn't education. That's the opposite of education. That's abuse. From what you've told me, it appears they've grossly misrepresented their authority, and grossly misrepresented the consequences to you and your daughter if you fail to follow their rules to the letter.

I believe you are basically a trusting person. Like most people, myself included, you were taught early to trust authority, and especially to have faith in professional educators. You never doubted that they, the experts, have children's best interests at heart, and that they will be open, honest and reasonable with parents.

Most of the time our trust in educators is warranted. But sometimes it is not. And nobody is born with the ability to distinguish between the two situations. Learning to recognize phonies and manipulators is a skill that we pick up over time, usually after a bit of bruising. Some never learn. The problem for parents of schoolchildren is, while they're learning to size up teachers and schools, their children can be harmed in ways that last a lifetime.

This may come as a surprise to you, but you should be made aware that, at the present time, the teaching profession in our country is like the proverbial Wild West. It is a catch-all for the excellent, the fairly good, the fair, the below par, the hangers-on, the incompetents and for more than a few bullies. Exactly why we are in this predicament is beyond the scope of this letter, and probably beyond the scope of my expertise. Politics surely has a lot to do with it. I have some theories. But I'd better stick with what I know best, and what you need to learn about a.s.a.p. The bullies.

A brief psychological profile of the typical bully:
The evidence suggests that all, or nearly all, bullies were once abuse victims, and their feelings of dread associated with horrific past abuse is their constant companion. When the mere thought of what was done to them as small children crosses their minds, it gives rise the very same emotions they experienced when the actual events were occurring: ones of utter terror and abandonment. They find themselves in a never-ending struggle to keep those awful emotions at bay. One way of doing that is by obsessively restaging their traumatic childhood experiences--not in fantasy, but in real life--and with a fatal twist. Now they are on the dishing-out side. Psychologists call this "role reversal." Bullies feel truly safe only when they are engaged in making someone else feel truly unsafe. Their own inner world calms down briefly while they are shaking up someone else's. They never get enough. They must constantly reassure themselves that now, they are the party in control. It's a true addiction. Naturally they gravitate to fields that give them an opportunity to indulge this addiction. The more clever of them find ways to parlay their need to dominate others into secure livelihoods gained through respectible professions. The most driven and cunning of them sometimes rise to positions of great power where they can dish it out on a grand scale and with absolute impunity. Regarding the most notorious tyrants and dictators--the giant-size bullies--whose childhood histories are known, their biographers reveal upbringings that were violent in the extreme and loveless.

Back to schools--the favorite stamping ground of pint-size bullies.

You say, "I tried last week to remove my daughter from this school, I was unsuccessful."

You were unsuccessful because you asked permission. Please understand, you do not need anyone's permission to protect your child from abusers. It's you right and your duty.

You say, "The mental health counselor said it is best for her to remain. If she misses school she will be considered truant."

This sounds like extortion to me. Ask this "mental health counselor" to explain to you exactly how forcing a child to shovel snow in sub-freezing weather until her feet hurt and getting smacked in the mouth contributes to her mental health. Have a pen and pad handy to write down the answer. Also, ask the counselor if he or she is a mandated reporter.

You say, "She has tried to call me and has had the phone shut off, when she was frustrated she then walked to find a phone they had her picked up for truancy and she received a ticket for skipping school."

Keeping a child forcibly incommunicado serves no educational purpose. No teacher was ever taught to do that in any accredited teachers' college. When a child feels the need to phone home and isn't permitted to do so, that should be a loud, clear warning signal that somebody is up to no good with the child, that something is going on that they don't want the parent to know about. Such interference with the basic, natural right of a parent and child to communicate with each other, particularly in times of stress, is morally, legally and pedagogically indefensible.

You say, "Now I am being told that this 'treatment program' will not give her a referral for any public school."

Sounds like more extortion. As a tax-paying citizen of the United States, you do not need anybody's "referral" to have your child attend school. It isn't like requesting an audience with royalty. Schools are there to serve children, not the other way around. Moreover, the public school system has an obligation to provide, at the very minimum, an environment that is safe. Clearly, that hasn't happened in your daughter's case. The school knows it, and they know you know it. So now they are determined to silence and immobilize you because you represent a potential threat to their ongoing activities. To accomplish this, they are reminding you in not-so-subtle ways that your daughter's educational future is in their hands, and that you had better be a good girl and not make waves. They are banking on your submissiveness to authority, your respect for "experts," and your apprehensions about your daughter's future to give them leverage over you.

Indeed, you should be apprehensive about your daughter's future, but not in the way the school intends. Far worse than the temporary disruption to a 15-year-old's formal education is the effect of her having been placed under the control of abusers by a parent. Lost schooling can be made up in the blink of an eye. It's no big deal. You could teach your daughter at home for a year, and she'd learn more and better than she is learning now. But damaged trust between you and her at this time in her development could have far-reaching consequences and take a lifetime to repair.

Whenever a parent is advised to surrender her child to the safe keeping of strangers, to trust their stated good intentions, and then, after the child has been hurt and made miserable, is pressured to "cooperate or else," that parent should ask herself, "Would I feel comfortable in letting such people look after our family's pet dog?"

In my first letter to you I said I'd send copies of our correspondence to every member of the Michigan state legislature. I will do that now. I'll ask them to communicate with you directly if they have additional or better advice than I've given. I'll give them your e-mail address.

Please keep me informed of developments. I hope this helps.

Jordan Riak

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