Co-principal Gail Rodgers teared up while recalling a moment when she escorted Harrington Elementary siblings and their mother out of an abusive home and drove them across the state. She cried as she spoke about how the first graders she was escorting asked her to say goodbye to the members of the behavioral intervention team at Harrington Elementary.
“I dropped them off, and they said to me ‘make sure you tell Ms. Kris goodbye,’” Rodgers said. “They said so many names on our staff of people who made them feel safe and loved during that school year that had been so hard for them.”
Ms. Kris, sitting next to Rodgers, also teared up.
Kris Dack, known as Ms. Kris to the students, is a behavior interventionist, and one-third of the behavioral intervention team at Harrington. Dack works with Anne O’Dell, another behavior interventionist, along with Aric Vaughn, the school’s mental health specialist.
While sitting in the small, child-sized plastic chairs in Vaughn’s office, the behavioral intervention team and co-principal Rodgers told me about their jobs working with their students.
“The demands here are considerable, and our students come from a high-need population,” Rodgers said. “A lot of students have experienced trauma.”
Dack, O’Dell, Rodgers and Vaughn said they have made it their goal to help the students of Harrington, especially those with trauma, to cope with emotional trouble. And they do it all in a building they say is literally crumbling.
Harrington Elementary is not a typical elementary school. Although it is located in Albion, on South Clark Street, it is part of the Marshall Public School District because the Albion Public School District dissolved in 2013.
Due to the distance between the school and the district it belongs to, securing funding to fix the building has been difficult, Vaughn said.
“When you have a town like Albion, and a school that is technically attached to Marshall, it’s hard to get new stuff, and we need new stuff, bad,” he said.
But it won’t just take new stuff to solve their problems.
“We can’t put things in the ceiling because it’s asbestos. We have problems with our doors, with our door knobs, with heating and cooling,” Rodgers said. “We desperately need a new building, but the future of that is still very uncertain.”
In 2021, a bond proposal was placed on the ballot in Calhoun County, which included funding for an entirely new school building for Harrington.
The proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by a vote of 3,294 to 1,664. Until more funding can be secured, the students of Albion will continue to go to school on South Clark Street.
For many students, the quality of the building is not the main concern though. Issues at home come first.
Vaughn said the students at Harrington face “generational mental health issues,” which can cause violent and emotional outbursts. Vaughn said the emotional behaviors at Harrington are “a magnifying glass for the community at large. There is nothing that happens here that’s not happening a block away.”
Rodgers said that problems at home translate to problems at school.
“We have kids who suffer from homelessness, food insecurity, mental health, living with parents who suffer from addiction,” she said.
Maurice Barry, the director of Community That Cares for Substance Abuse Prevention Services, works closely with the students and families of Harrington, educating them about substance use issues and healthy coping tactics.
“My purpose is to not leave any kid behind,” Barry said. “I’ve got a good camaraderie with them.”
Barry confirmed that many children in Albion face traumatic issues at home. He said that familial disputes, or “Hatfield-McCoy syndrome,” trickles down to the kids and manifests as violence in the schools.
The violence is “a continuation of a beef that they have nothing to do with,” Barry said, adding that drugs and a lack of fatherly guidance also contribute to the problems.
The behavior intervention team at Harrington works primarily with students who are affected by these issues, but their mission isn’t to just intervene and reprimand children who behave poorly. They said that they aim to teach the students emotional management skills, like identifying and articulating their feelings.
“The most successful part of my day is when I can reach out and connect to a kid who is way back here,” Dack said, gesturing to the back of her head, “and with a calm, safe approach, help them identify a feeling, identify a need, and reset, and bring them back down.”
Twice during the interview, Dack left the room to do just that after teachers requested her help.
First, Dack left empty-handed and came back a few minutes later with a handful of picture books about volcanoes. Later, the whole team got a text message in a group chat from a teacher saying that a student had “called everyone ‘dicks’ and then left the room.” The team chuckled, and then Dack went to help.
That is the way it goes at Harrington, O’Dell told me.
“We call ourselves fire extinguishers,” she said.
Because of the building’s issues, the violence and the trauma the team deals with on a daily basis, extinguishing those fires weighs on them emotionally.
Vaughn said that sometimes it can be impossible to separate his work from his life.
“Some days are hard,” he said. “When you have kids that open up about some of the horrifically tragic things that have happened to them, there is no way as a human being that that doesn’t weigh on you.”
Vaughn told a story about a time he became aware of siblings who were facing abuse at home. Because Vaughn is a state-mandated reporter, he was forced to file a report.
After the report was filed, Vaughn said the guardian of the students requested that the children no longer work with him.
“Because of that, I can’t see that family of kids, who obviously still have a huge need. I can only say ‘good morning’ and ‘have a good day,’” Vaughn said. “That was a tough day for me.”
The job may be emotionally taxing, Rodgers said, but she is willing to embrace it.
“I look at other schools, and I wouldn’t want to be there. I like the problems that we solve here,” Rodgers said. “These are not problems of privilege. Those would really annoy me.”
Rodgers said that because of the emotional weight, the staff started holding short daily meetings every morning. Sometimes they only meet for a few minutes, just to lift each other’s spirits.
“There’s a loving feeling on our staff,” Rodgers said. “We get together and cheer each other on and have so much fun.”
“Because we have to,” Dack said.
Recently, the team spent the morning hula-hooping.
According to Rodgers, one teacher at Harrington is an incredibly talented hula-hooper – it was not Vaughn.
“I’m horrible at hula-hooping!” he said.
For Vaughn, hula-hooping is not why he shows up to work every day. It’s the students.
“Sometimes they are so happy to see you,” he said. “Just genuinely happy that you came to work today.”
For him, “That’s enough.”