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Cats and Dogs


I am sitting on a park bench listening to a psychotic try to make sense of his world.

"Can you believe that lady cop?" he asked in a defiant voice. "People don't need shit to own a cat."

I notice a female police officer standing nearby. She appears to be walking away from us and toward a playground. The disheveled and angry man is wearing a worn blue parka and lime green sneakers. He reaches into a salvaged baby carriage and grabs a McDonald's cheeseburger. A small white dog appears from beneath the bench and sits at the man's feet. He tosses the burger to the begging dog.

"Cats don't do nothing for nobody 'cept themselves," he complains.

I have no idea what he is talking about but nevertheless nod my head in agreement. I watch the dog hold the cheeseburger between his front paws and remove the meat patty.

"That cop wanted to give me a ticket for not having my dog on a leash."

I try to redirect the conversation. "What's the dog's name?"

"Name? He got no name. He doesn't need to know my name to know who I am and I don't need to know his name to know who he is."

Fair enough. I wonder, for a moment, why I bothered to name my dog.

"You see that lady cop over there? She's gonna take away my dog if I don't put him on a leash. She says all dogs got to be leashed."

"You'll probably never see her again," I said.

"Nobody wants to put a leash on a cat because cats know how to play the game," he replied.

I was hoping to spend a quiet afternoon in the park before heading back to the airport and not be drawn into a cat versus dog conversation. But the word leash hit a sore spot.

Earlier in the day I had met a special education teacher who was trying to make sense of her world. She was very upset about the impending closing of her alternative high school. The principal in charge of the main high school-as well as the off-campus alternative high school- informed the teacher that her population of students "cost the district too much money, bring down test scores, and should be kept on leashes."

I was upset but not shocked by the principal's remarks. I teach at an alternative high school and derogatory comments about my students flow freely among some educators. Alternative high schools have a long history of being utilized as "dumping grounds" for students classified with emotional disabilities, regardless of their diagnosis. That is why despite considerable etiologic pathologies, a child suffering from social anxiety disorder will share the same classroom with a child suffering from oppositional-defiant disorder. The catch all design of most alternative high schools is a product of economics and ignorance. Students afflicted with severe emotional disabilities cost considerably more to educate on a per pupil basis and too many people believe emotional disability is a singular noun.

The teacher wanted to know why her students are treated so poorly. It's a very good question, and one that needs answering. I have visited alternative high schools housed in school and church basements, trailers, and buildings that should be condemned. No other population of students is treated with such disdain.

One explanation is the fact that not all disabilities are alike or treated with equal resolve by those entrusted with the welfare and education of all students. Emotional disabilities fall on the far end of the disability spectrum, a place where people's sympathies seldom visit. The "deaf, dumb, and blind" once shared a spot at this end of the spectrum until advocacy groups, journalists, and community outrage put an end to the systemic neglect of these children. The value of hearing impaired, vision impaired, and cognitively impaired students triumphed and a modern sense of civility brought hope and dignity to these beautiful children. Sadly, that same sense of modern civility is lacking with respect to emotionally impaired students.

The man on the bench interrupted my thoughts.

"You think a dog should be kept on a leash?" he asked.

"I think-"

"Don't forget cats know how to play the game," he reminded me. "They sure know how to play the game."

Cats are probably more cunning than dogs but seeing one on a leash seems anomalous to the natural order of things. I have seen yuppies leash rabbits, ferrets, iguanas, Vietnamese Pot Belly pigs and sometimes their own children while strolling about Central Park, but I can't recall seeing a cat on a leash.

"I guess fair is fair," I said. "If dogs must be leashed, then cats must be leashed."

"What do you think about tying a leash to some school children?" I asked. "The kind of students who misbehave in class?"

The homeless man stared at me, appearing bewildered and slightly perturbed by my question.

"Look and see what I have in this bag," he replied.

He unraveled a rolled up Wal-Mart bag and started to remove bottles of pills. "Doctors say I have psychosis, hypo-sis, and some other kind of posis. So he gives me these pills. But as crazy as I may be, I would never think about putting no leash on a child. No how, no way."

"No how, no way?"

"No how, no way," he answered.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is calling access to quality education "the civil rights issue of our generation." This right is being denied to tens of thousands of children suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis and other crippling emotional disabilities. One million high school students will become dropouts this year, and the majority of these teenagers are afflicted with emotional disabilities. 70% of students classified SED or BED will dropout of school and 75% will end up in jail within five years of leaving school. Students identified with severe emotional disabilities graduate at a lower rate than any other group of students receiving special services.

The term Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) is used to identify a child whose mental health condition causes him or her to have extreme difficulties at home, at school and with classmates. It is often called "The Invisible Handicap" because the disability cannot be easily seen. Children with mood disorders are often very intelligent and have the cognitive skills to complete challenging school work and be successful, that is why SED students frustrate and anger teachers not trained to deal with this population of students; hence the principal's suggestion to keep them leashed.

Children do not make a conscious decision to live with a debilitating mental illness and they should not be treated as damaged goods. Alternative high schools are often the last stop for teenagers considering dropping out of school. These schools provide the small classroom settings and mental health support that fosters the growth of interpersonal relationships with teachers and peers - a prerequisite to the success of BED students.

My park bench companion decides its time to leave. He returns the Wal-Mart bag to the baby carriage and walks in the opposite direction of the police officer. The unleashed dog takes the lead.

Psychosis is a strange illness. Some victims are totally removed from reality while others are only partially separated from it. Fortunately for the man with the dog, he seems only partially removed from reality.

As for the principal who wants to leash SED children? You be the judge.


One of the most intelligent students I ever taught poured gasoline over himself one sunny fall afternoon and lit a match. When word of how he died emerged, the district sent around a memo directing teachers not to talk about it. Less than a year later, his mother shot her other son in head, shot the family dog, then turned the gun on herself.

Pretending that "other people" have emotional and mental illness--isolating them from mainstream programs and services--feels safer to school officials than looking at causes and solutions.

When we look only at students in terms of their potential productivity, it becomes easier to marginalize, even ignore, those who don't fit neatly into their slots.

Cats on leashes, indeed. Very thoughtful piece, Tony.


Well said and such a tragedy. We all know that a child's emotional health is linked to academic and social success but, for the majority, fail to address this issue. We are a system of cats and dogs.

All the best,


Tony - I loved reading this column and I am proud and hopeful of your appointment as Teacher of the Year. I am hopeful that your selection is a sign that our country understands the special needs of SED and BED children. I am looking forward to reading your insights since, as a relatively new teacher, I too need to better understand the issues you address. Thank you - Liz


Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad that you enjoyed my blog!

All the best,


Congratulations on your award and I am thrilled to see that a teacher who works in a school setting out of the mainstream has received this recognition. I will continue to watch this blog.
My comment is this; At the end of the day when I look back at what I have done I think to my emotionally disturbed students and think I spent, my time indiviualizing the instruction and time communicating with them. I created a classroom that was safe for them and allowed them time to express themselves. And we had a really good day! And then it hits me I have no idea what the other 22 regular ed kids in the classroom did that day.
I really don't mind working with the special needs kids,I find it challenging and rewarding. But at whose expense? I cannot bring the two sides of my job into harmony with each other. I will continue to watch, looking for insights.
Thanks for listening.

Dear Mr. Mullen,
I just read your blog of Oct. 27 and I want to thank you for sharing that story and your insights. I have been a teacher for 28 years and a mother of 4 distinctly unique children. Something in your story touched me. One of my children was in the Gifted and Talented Education program and is currently at university studying psychology. His twin brother is cleaning toilets as a substitute custodian in my school district. Sweet as the day is long, he struggled in school right along side his gifted twin brother. You can imagine the bitter sweetness of this situation in my household. But it is my youngest son that your blog provided information for me.
My youngest son has been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, and as you mentioned in your blog, has high intelligence, perhaps he's got the highest IQ of the 4. But he is pained, and at times paralyzed by his anxiety. He is a big, muscular, athletic kid, but is too nervous to join any team, though he really wants to. He actually got all the paperwork together, went through the required physical examination for football, and ultimately decided that he didn't have the endurance to run as much as was required in an entire football game. His anxiety sabotages him. Video gaming is his solace. He can remain anonymous while excelling in the "sport," choosing names such as "Godly Warrior," providing a glimpse into his inner desire to be courageous and brave. Until I read your blog, and this is something because I have been to psychologists, counselors and other experts in the field and never quite got that he has a mental illness. I just keep expecting him to snap out of it.
So I am softened this morning, and encouraged by your words not to give up on my complicated kid. I will continue to provide the emotional support and encouragement he needs to face going to school each and every day. I will understand his need to dissolve into video gaming for awhile each day to de-stress from the pressures he feels just to get through a day of classes. I will continue to talk to him about the possibilities and remind him that "there is nothing he can't do..." as Teddy Kennedy once told his son. And I will try to remember that he walks through this world in a far different way than I did, or his brothers do and remember to walk for awhile in his shoes.
So thank you for posting your blog and sharing your understandings about mental illness. For today, anyway, I have new resolve.

Hi, Lisa.

Thanks for the comment. The problem with trying to use an inclusion model with all students is that it does not work. Some students need smaller classrooms and the immediate attention of teachers to develop academically as well as socially.

Dear Mr. Mullen,
I just found your blog through the http://www.learningpage.com site. I am also a teacher by choice. This is my second career. Previously, I worked with a doctor specializing in behavioral health. Imagine my surprise when I had a son recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I see this marginalization happening with him, and know the danger in which it places him. It makes me so upset to see his teachers, year after year, compartmentalize him as a "troubled" kid. He is an extremely bright, creative student. Your article gives me hope that other teachers (and parents) see these children as valuable members of our society, meant to be taught just as those with other disabilities.
Thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your timely thoughts.


Thank you for your kind remarks. I am glad to have the opportunity to bring hope to people such as you.

All the best,


Students who are both gifted and learning or emotionally disabled are considered "twice-exceptional" or 2e. This happens more often than you might think. There are online communities for parents of 2e children. For more information and some great resources, try Hoagie's Everything Gifted Page: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/what_is_2e.htm


Hi, Lesse.


Thank you for sensitively advocating for students with emotional disturbances.

I teach students who are identified with these often episodic and hidden, yet very real, disabilities. All too often they are stigmatized and punished for behaviors that are manifestations of their disabilities. We need more educators like you, Anthony, who are knowledgeable and compassionate about the needs of these students, and are willing to advocate for them.

Special education services need to be provided to support them, and not denied or delayed (as is what commonly happens in an RtI model). I encourage all of us to remember that we are required by law to assess in all areas of suspected disability (or ability). And as Lessa's above post accurately points out, students with emotional disabilities may also be intellectually gifted, or have cognitive abilities that lie anywhere along the continuum.

Thank you again for your important post, Anthony.

Hi, Kim.

Thank you for taking the time to comment and to share your important message.We need to keep this dialogue alive.

All the best,


Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Tony: Hi, Kim. Thank you for taking the time to comment read more
  • Kim, Teacher: Thank you for sensitively advocating for students with emotional disturbances. read more
  • Tony: Hi, Lesse. Thanks! read more
  • Lessa Scherrer/Princess Mom: Students who are both gifted and learning or emotionally disabled read more
  • Tony: Barbara, Thank you for your kind remarks. I am glad read more




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