Students at Oliver Citywide Academy are returning to classes Wednesday for the first time after a shooting outside the school on Jan. 19 left student Marquis Campbell dead. Oliver is a highly structured, specialized school for students in grades 3-12 with individualized learning plans (or IEPs) and a staff trained to deal with learning and behavioral challenges. 

Some parents were worried that returning to school on Wednesday would be especially difficult for the students, many of whom have emotional, social and behavioral challenges. But on the other hand, many children at Oliver need specialized in-person services to thrive. One mother, Traci Darin, described the dilemma she faced in deciding whether or not to send her child, AJ, back to school in person. AJ, who asked not to use his full name for privacy reasons, is an upperclassmen at Oliver; he also shared about his school journey and feelings on returning after the shooting.

(The interviews below are edited for brevity and clarity.)

Darin shared how the shooting has impacted their family. 

On Jan. 19, I got the call from the district around 1 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. As a parent, my heart stopped. Logic was not part of the equation. All I heard was: Shot. Van. Outside. Waiting.

My son, AJ, rides a van midday from Oliver where he does his academics in the morning to a trade school in the afternoon. 

I remember realizing: He’s safe, he’s safe, he’s already at his trade school. 

He has not been impacted directly, so in his mind, we have to get back to normal. He wants to go back to school. He’s not viewing his life through the filter of being disabled. He’s proud of himself. He’s got a job. He made honor roll. He just wants to be a kid. All teenagers think they are invincible. 

He didn’t witness the shooting, thankfully. A lot of children and adults like him are held together with very structured lives. The bipolar has not spiked yet. ‘I’m going back, you can’t stop me, I’ve had it, I hate remote,’ he told me. He’s seething, he’s angry, he wants to be back in person. He could have a delayed reaction. 

So I’m between a rock and a hard spot. So if I send him back, even for just the half day, does he have the insight to carry himself with grace and put aside the paranoia that his illness breeds?  I can’t speak for all parents but my concern is that these kids are going to be in varying states of stability upon return. So it’s not so simple as, ‘Are they going to be safe from another shooting?’ It’s, ‘Are they ready emotionally to deal with each other’s emotional volatility?’

And if I keep him home right now, he’s not going to get the services he gets in the building through remote instruction. He has to go back or might as well be in front of the TV all day.

Traci and her son AJ talked in their living room about how he was feeling about returning to school on Wednesday. (Photo by Oliver Morrison / PublicSource)

To understand why transitioning back to school for AJ is so difficult, Darin said you have to understand what is unique about AJ.

In fifth grade, my son AJ was taking a van to school because he couldn’t control himself on a bus. He was just so manic. One day, he got off the van and ran toward the oncoming cars. And we’re all screaming at him, my neighbors and me. He’s young and stops and looks at us like we’re insane. He says to me, “Don’t worry mom, I’m like superman. I’ll just jump and fly over the cars.” That was terrifying. 

At school he would be trying to duck and hide from whatever he was seeing and teachers would restrain him. He would just curl into a ball, and would just say, “I want to go home, I want to go home” because he couldn’t stop it.

Darin sent AJ to a private school for a while before deciding to bring him back to Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

So as he was nearing the end of 8th grade, I wanted him to reintegrate back into an approved public school in an inclusive environment. I wanted him back closer to home in the city where he could start making friends. The only school equipped to help him with the transition was Oliver. 

I thought that Oliver was a school ‘for the bad kids.’ But a special task force that helps parents of students with disabilities helped guide me to Oliver. I was one of the first parents to be able to choose Oliver. I chose it because it had a person-centered approach. They focus on the person, not the diagnosis. It’s unconditional approval, almost like parenting, no matter what you do, even if I don’t like your behaviors.

Darin doesn’t believe virtual school is right for everyone or even AJ, but she is worried the return to Oliver after the shooting is happening too soon for a student population with special needs. “Are they going to be triggering each other?” she wondered. Yet she’s decided:

I am going to be sending him back [today]. He’s 17. And at some point as a parent, whether your child has a major mental health diagnosis or not, as a parent you have to give them the freedom to fly.

So how does AJ feel about returning?

Part of me is a little afraid, but part of me really wants to go back to in person. 

Before the shooting, school was good. We learned a lot more in person than online. If we needed help, we can ask the teachers and they can come over and they can show us what we need to do. But when we share the screen on [Microsoft] Teams, it’s difficult to understand what they’re trying to say.

Honestly, I don’t have that much social skills. I’m creative, I’m a good artist but I don’t do art that much anymore. I have an issue of worrying about other people being better than me and then I don’t try to get to their level. 

AJ was diagnosed as bipolar in fifth grade. He explained how being bipolar has affected him and his experiences with other students:

A few years ago when I was at school, me and some kids got in arguments and they picked on me, and I should’ve just ignored them but I didn’t and I just made the situation worse. I learned my lesson since then, so I don’t do that anymore. But in a way, that has made me not very cooperative with other people and that’s something I’m trying to fix. After that incident, I would avoid them. I did that for so long, it’s been a bad habit. I don’t interact with other kids. I say hi and stuff but I don’t have conversations with them. 

Before I found out I had bipolar in elementary school, it was normal. I didn’t have any friends but it was the closest thing I had to a normal life. 

“Sometimes I wish people were like animals,” AJ said. “Animals know exactly what they are supposed to do. They do what they’re meant to do and don’t have to worry about what they think and what others think.” (Photo by Oliver Morrison/PublicSource)

AJ shared about how he started to act out in school in the past as he coped with what he called bipolar spikes and psychosis. He said his treatments have made it “quieter now.” He spoke about when he started at Oliver and how he feels about returning after the shooting of a fellow student. 

My first day at Oliver, I was a little nervous. I’m pretty sure any kid would be. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. The more I went, the more I got used to the schedule and the teachers and the kids. The teachers knew what they were doing. The old school tried to help us make [our diagnoses] go away. But at Oliver, they don’t do that. They teach us to control it since we can’t make it go away. They teach us to control our moods and illnesses.

I guess going to school gives me structure. And if I don’t have something to do then I’m a mess.

I’m a little scared to return to school but I’m not scared like other people might be because I’ve been through scarier things. That’s the truth. I mean getting shot is scary but it’s not as scary as hearing voices in my head and acting weird and getting angry for no reason.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...