This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
https://player.vimeo.com/video/126473944?loop=0 Glen Casey’s early school years were marked by all the academic warning signs: low grades, truancy, and suspensions.
“He was verbally aggressive,” recalls Rich Neal, a behavioral specialist with NorthEast Treatment Centers (NET). Neal would be at Glen’s side until the tide turned for him years later.
“He talked back to teachers, refused to do work. He’d leave the classroom cursing out the teachers. A lot of the trauma Glen had gone through definitely contributed to his behaviors.
“He had so much anger. He had seen so many people fail, so many people not make it. He didn’t think he was going to get out of the hood. He was going to wind up dead or in jail,” Neal says.
Glen’s mother, Wilhelmina Casey, feeling that she needed help in dealing with her son, reached out to NET when he was in 3rd grade at the now-closed Wilson Elementary School.
“He played a major role, and I didn’t understand that until later on,” Glen says of Neal.
“When I was younger, I was never trying to hear anything he had to say. He would pop up in my school and stuff, and sit in on me, and I’m like, ‘Who is this dude coming in?’ And he would come to my house and chat with my mom and the typical stuff a behavior specialist would do. He was constantly in my ear. … ‘You gotta do better! You gotta do better!’”
It took him years to realize the value in Neal’s words.
“If I had not had Richard Neal in my life … if I hadn’t had [him] in my ear, then I wouldn’t have started thinking, wouldn’t have been open to change within myself. Even though I was doing X and Y and Z, when he was telling me B and C, I was still hearing it, and that was important because it played a role later on.
“A lot of the trouble I got into, really, was just simple things,” Glen recalls.
“Just having too much mouth or I was trying to get in the last word over somebody else and not really having any respect for authority. I kind of looked at my teachers on a peer level, rather than on an authoritative level, so it was crossing boundaries for me right there. But a lot of it was just mouth. I just always had to have the last word.”
A support system
Glen stands outside Studio 7, a lounge in West Philadelphia, which he said was a hangout for his father. In 2005, his father was deported to Jamaica. (Photo: Dorian Geiger)
When Neal first met Glen and his mother, he was struck by how optimistic she was about her son despite the behaviors that had made her ask for help in dealing with him.
“Mrs. Casey spoke so glowingly about Glen despite the problems. She spoke positively about how smart he was, how talented he was, how he was going to do great things in the future,” Neal recalls.
“Mrs. Casey was on welfare, the house wasn’t well-kept, but she was doing her best to take care of Glen and his older brother. And he did present as a likable kid.”
As he started working with Glen, Neal says, he noticed that in many cases, “His behaviors were to get out of something, and the school was inadvertently reinforcing that behavior.
“We developed a positive behavior support plan and coached the teachers and the staff. … We wanted to keep the kid on task, to ask for a break in an appropriate manner.”
It was slow going, though. When Glen moved to Wagner Middle School. Neal would sometimes go there and find Glen in a stairwell or wandering the hallways. “He’d be on the rolls. He’d checked in, but the teachers hadn’t seen him all day.”
And the problems continued into 9th grade at University City High School.
“I don’t think Glen passed one class,” Neal says. He also wound up in truancy court.
“We were really worried about him,” Neal says. “He just wasn’t into the work. He manipulated his way out of an honors math class without his mother knowing it.” She tried to get the school to put him back in, because “she knew he was capable of doing the work,” but she was unsuccessful.
But as her health was failing, so was her ability to supervise Glen.
“I ditched school to be out on the streets to sell drugs,” Glen says. “During my 9th-grade year, I was selling crack for about a year.”
There was a series of violent incidents, including a botched burglary attempt, although he somehow avoided being shot or going to jail.
“I was living a typical life of a 9th grader who has a [big] ego. Like nobody can tell you anything. Whatever you think is right is right, and you’re gonna do what you want to do.”
Ninth grade was also when another key figure entered Glen’s life – NET therapist Da Sheila Williams.
Her recollections are similar to Neal’s.
”He was in trouble every day. … He was getting suspensions, 10-day suspensions, one after the other, cutting class, running in the hallway, being disrespectful to staff. … He had failed a lot of classes.”
But Williams also viewed Glen’s issues through a different lens than previous therapists had. They had diagnosed him with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD.
“If anything, it probably was depression, and part of it was genetic, because his mother was depressed,” Williams says.
In some ways, she says, Glen’s problems were similar to those of other young males she treated.
“He never thought he’d get out of the hood, with the prostitutes and the drug boys. That’s where he was and that’s what he knew. He didn’t think he was going to live past a certain age. He had these premonitions. I believe that was why he sabotaged a lot of his own success,” she says.
“When I’d talk about college, he’d say, ‘College? Nobody in my family’s ever been to college.’ College wasn’t in his purview. It was necessary to correct those errors in thinking.”
Glen listens during his favorite class at the University of Pennsylvania, called “The Color of Laughter.” (Photo: Dorian Geiger)
But there were important differences as well. One was the fact that Glen embraced therapy, which Williams says was unlike many of his peers.
Another was Glen’s insights.
“He was very mature for his age. There was a sense of integrity. Some of it was inherited, some was from his mom. He knew exactly why he did what he did. At the same time, he was brutally honest about his feelings and his thoughts.”
She started seeing Glen once a week, sometimes alone and sometimes with his mother or Neal.
”We went into his family background, the separation from his father at an early age, and what that meant to him,” she says. “It was about who he was as a person.”
In building on the moral foundation that Wilhelmina Casey had laid down for her son, Williams says, “I always focused on what he was doing that was good and right – about his decision-making process and what he could do differently.”
But there were times that she had to get tough with Glen.
“I’d get in his face. I’d say, ‘Are you going to make a decision to live or a decision to die? And I’m not going to watch you make the decision to die. You’re going to make the decision to live, and that means you’re going to do something different with your life,’” she says.
And she told him just what that was.
“You can go to college. You can be different.’”
Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook. Dorian Geiger is a multimedia journalist who has previously covered summer learning loss for the Notebook.
This story is part two of a three-part series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the van Ameringen Foundation.