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I Was Assaulted by a School Nurse During a Trauma Crisis

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

This is a story written by both my friend Cass Gray (also a contributor to The Mighty) and myself.

It is no secret that schools have come under heavy criticism for the impact they have on their students’ mental health. The people on the educational front are often the first line of defense when it comes to student suffering. For the most part, those at our school have demonstrated compassion, empathy and wisdom in guiding us through many challenges.

We have been blessed beyond belief with a circle of amazing teachers who support us in whatever ways we need, and this is in no way meant to cast a negative shadow on them and all their hard work to make a difference in the lives of their students. Our hope in writing this is that awareness is spread for the betterment of school faculty on the correct response to student mental health crises. It is our wish that no other student or parent will have to endure what we have.

November 1, 2019, started as a normal day with a normal schedule. We went to our classes, turned in our homework and laughed with each other, as usual. We had no idea of the drastic turn the day would take.

During Spanish class, I (Olivia) experienced a freeze response due to my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A freeze response is a trauma response that can leave the individual unable to move and speak — essentially “frozen” in time, but aware of their surroundings.

After class ended, my friend Cass noticed what was happening and, unsure of what to do, attracted the attention of our teacher for help. She filled her in on the response and the decision was made to send for the substitute nurse; the nurse who was familiar with my history was out that day. Having knowledge of what was happening and how to help, Cass was given permission by our teacher to remain by my side.

While waiting for the nurse, Cass and our teacher began to comfort me. After a few minutes of their reassurances, I had improved to the point of menial communication, voicing my request for an ice pack which can be used to shock the senses and reverse the freeze response.

Unable to find an ice pack, our teacher left the room to retrieve one. A few minutes after our teacher’s departure, the nurse arrived. She stood in the doorway, and she barked at me, “Get up!”

Cass calmly explained the response, and that I was unable to follow through with her command. The nurse then glared at Cass and retorted with, “She can.” The nurse continued to berate me as Cass knelt by my side, in shock. The nurse repeatedly told me I need to “get up” and “go downstairs,” ignoring Cass’ insistence that I was unable to do so.

During this time, I was completely aware of what was happening and terrified of the nurse who showed no ounce of compassion or humanity in her.

I was frozen with my head propped up on my arm, the latter of which the nurse began to forcibly pull in an attempt to bring it to my side. All the while, she continued to critique me and demand that I move. Due to the rigidness of my arm, and my inability to move freely, the pull caused pain, which I did not have the ability to express.

Cass blocked the nurse by placing her hand on my arm and was then ordered by the nurse to leave. She calmly explained that she had been given express permission by our teacher to remain by my side, but the argument made no difference and she was forced to leave. The nurse told her that she didn’t care and that she was to leave so that she could “remove” me from the classroom.

Cass left the room, and unbeknownst to me at the time, went to guidance to inform them of the abuse. She descended into a panic attack as she left, terrified at having to leave me with the nurse.

With Cass gone, the nurse began to pull on my arm more aggressively, so much so that, after the incident, I had fingernail marks on my arm. She told me to “get up” and that I was “not leaving here in an ambulance again.” She was referring to the previous day when I had been transferred to the hospital after receiving an EpiPen for an allergic reaction. She then continued to cause me pain by pushing the desk out of the way and pulling my legs.

What happens next is not as clear as I would like, as I was panicking, but the nurse left to go to guidance and our teacher returned and placed the ice pack on my hand. I was visibly upset at this point and had tears streaming down my face. After a few minutes, I was able to speak enough to tell my teacher to “not let that bitch [the nurse] near me again.”

Regaining my ability to speak, and hysterical from the events that occurred, my teacher called guidance to request help, saying I was in distress and in need of assistance. Our counselor, however, was unable to come.

I decided to go to guidance on my own. Our teacher walked me down the hallway where we crossed paths with the counselor and nurse. Filled with righteous indignation at the treatment I had been subjected to, I yelled at the nurse, “Who the hell do you think you are?!”

The nurse scolded me for yelling at her, and I was ushered into the guidance department where I met up with a visibly distressed Cass. She had been waiting to see our guidance counselor to inform her of the situation, but who had been too busy with the nurse to speak to her.

I was taken into our counselor’s office where I recounted the incident and the nurse’s abominable behavior. After I finished, my counselor conceded that the nurse’s behavior was not appropriate, but continued to make excuses. She claimed that, as the nurse was unfamiliar with my history, it was a perfectly understandable situation, despite Cass’ repeated attempts to inform her of such.

I was then lectured for my behavior and told how there are expectations that school personnel not be yelled at in the hallway. Never mind that my expectation of not being physically assaulted by staff had been violated.

Cass was then called in, crying, and corroborated my story. She requested that the nurse be removed from the school and not be allowed to return. We were given numerous excuses for the inexcusable behavior we had been subjected to, and given the option of speaking to the vice principal. Having had good experiences with him before, we agreed to see him and make our concerns and requests for the nurse’s removal known.

Upon telling him our story, he asked if we had any witnesses. I explained that while Cass had seen the beginning of the nurse’s attempt to move me, she had — conveniently — been sent out of the room for most of the assault. He then explained that the nurse worked in an ER, and therefore did not know how to treat children. (The perfect lady to then have work in a school.) He concluded the meeting by referencing a Japanese sitcom he frequently watches, laughing and walking out.

The traumatic day ended with our calls to our parents to dismiss us from school as we were far too upset to continue the day.

While our experience is unfortunate and inexcusable, it does not stand alone in the sea of students with additional needs being subjected to inappropriate — not to mention cruel and abusive — treatment from school personnel who are not properly trained to identify those in distress due to a mental health crisis.

While some may claim that what happened was a misunderstanding, I choose to call it what it is — an assault on a student in a mental health crisis due to prejudice against those with mental illness. Had the nurse seen me frozen, identified that it was a mental health issue and therefore beyond her scope of expertise, and gone to guidance, the whole situation would have played out very differently. However, her arrogance and bias led her to the conclusion that I was attention-seeking and just needed to be snapped out of it, leading to the chaos and trauma that then ensued because of her behavior.

The need for accurate training and overall compassion and awareness in school personnel toward those with mental illness is overwhelming. While my teachers are compassionate and kind individuals, their understanding was not able to save me from the abuse I experienced at the hands of the substitute nurse. Training teachers is not enough in this regard. All school staff should be aware of how to respond to those in a mental health crisis, or at least how to identify those who are experiencing one, and they may one day be the one called on to respond to the situation.

After many arguments, we (and our parents) have been reassured that the nurse in question will not be at our school again, but that does not erase the trauma of what happened or the fear it could happen to someone else.

Until action is taken, and proper training dispersed among school faculty, instances such as that which we experienced will continue to occur.

Prejudice against those with mental illness is real, and it causes damage. It is our hope that this article sparks change, and that our experience and suffering from what occurred will not be in vain.

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

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