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'Help me' cries often silenced

By Tom Davis

A teenage girl approached Jennifer Peter after school."Can I just tell you about the time I was raped?" she asked.

Peter, a teacher in inner-city Baltimore, referred her to social workers.The move angered the girl's parents, who withdrew the request for counseling.Not only that, they scapegoated Peter and soughtretribution.

"They [the parents] actually went to school to findme," said Peter, a Teanecknative.

Peter has suffered from bipolar disorder and knows what it'slike to seek help. "I see things in people that they don't see inthemselves," she said.

The next time she refers a case, however, she'd like to seeit through. The problem is, she and many others confront a system that strugglesto protect schoolchildren who seek help, educators say.

In Maryland, New Jersey andelsewhere, the resources aren't always available to teachers who confront theeffects of rape, murder and other crimes. Many of these children suffer frompost-traumatic stress disorder, educators say. But getting parents, guardiansand others who care for children to admit to mental illness is the bigchallenge.

"Do the schools wish they could do more? Of course wedo," said Joseph Montesano, superintendent of Hackensack schools. "Our obligation isto assist kids the best way we can."

Teachers have a legal obligation to report cases of concernto a school's support staff and, if necessary, the authorities, Montesano said.Failing to do so could be a law violation, too.

"Let's say the teacher didn't do anything about it.Then a few months later the student admits it to the parents that she told theteacher. They could bring due process against the teacher," said Tom Kersting, a counselor in the Ramapo-IndianHills school district.

He and others, however, warn that parents have rights. Theparents are not always required to do anything to follow up, Kersting said. Conversely, if parents are cooperative,there's no guarantee that a student with mental illness can get help.

"It's not a problem that's always fixable,"Montesano said.

Caring for mentally ill students can overwhelm family,teachers, counselors. Peter has special-educationstudents in her class. With as many as 40 students under her care - many ofwhom deal with trauma and other issues - providing for their needs is next toimpossible.

But she does what she can. She talks to her students andshows that she cares. They trust her. Sometimes, she'll even take on theparental role and assist students beyond the classroom.

She says she and other teachers joke that they feel like"they've given birth to 80 kids."

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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