Children Psychologically Imprisoned?: Whistleblower Reveals High-Stakes Testing Preparation

I’ll admit it. When A Terrifying Report about Child Abuse in Texas Schools–and in Your State Too first ran about a month ago on Diane Ravitch’s blog— it flew under my radar. The post detailed the allegations of child abuse for the purposes of high-stakes testing at a high-minority, Title I East Austin elementary school near downtown. Then Angela Valenzuela, a UT-Austin Professor and longtime crusader against the abuses of high-stakes testing, brought it back into the public discourse via an public email recently (Check out her blog Educational Equity, Politics & Policy in Texas). So what has Austin ISD promoted as test preparation in many of its high-minority, Title I elementary schools? Here are some excerpts from Ravitch’s original blog:

Re: Report of Psychological Abuse in An AISD Elementary School

Dear Senator Nelson & HHS Committee,

I am writing to report my observations of psychological abuse in a public elementary school in AISD. I am providing this report to your committee as my professional responsibility and according to the Texas Family Code. The conditions and methods described in this report can be confirmed by mental health experts as factors which are known to contribute to mental illness and criminality when used for conditioning and shaping behavior in young children…

The New 3 R’s System was designed by a former structural engineer who became a principal in AISD. He designed his own program of behavioral engineering and experimented on the general elementary school population of minority students ages 4 – 11. It was a successful and efficient method of getting high performance on tests, and led to his school receiving an Exemplary performance rating on statewide testing and national recognition for his school. This high performance recognition led to the Austin ISD allowing another Title I school principal to implement the same New 3 R’s System. After the 2nd school implemented the program over three years and received an Exemplary rating on statewide testing, AISD allowed the principal to train other principals in Title I schools. AISD allowed this program to be implemented into Title I schools without adequate review by mental health experts who would have recognized the potential for psychological harm to young children…

What the New 3 R’s System calls good discipline, is actually punitive ABA. The signs of psychological abuse that I have observed from chronic stress in this system usually begin by age 6 – 8. The most common symptoms begin with signs of desensitization, anxiety, loss of imagination, loss of spontaneity, loss of humor, regression, irritability, self injury, inability to concentrate, and dissociation…

Any child with unfinished homework on any given day is singled out in the cafeteria during their lunch, in front of their school community, as punishment for not having completed their work. This method of shaming and humiliating a child during their lunch, in front of their peers, teachers, mentors, school staff, parents, and others, is a method known to cause psychological harm to children. It causes scapegoating and social isolation, and causes a child to become labeled as an “offender”. Many of the younger children cry when forced to sit in isolation by themselves in front of everyone in the cafeteria. Some of their peers show signs of sympathy, while others make sarcastic comments or looks, and others fear the same could happen to them. Most of the children see the injustice, and feel helpless and sad for the victims. This method of humiliating children causes strong emotions of shame, anger, and resentment for both the victim and the bystanders. By using this method, teachers are modeling negative behavior of “bullying”, while presenting it to the child as “good discipline”…

The child who suffered the most punishment with this method last year due to chronic homework problems, was also a victim of impoverished family circumstances. Her name is XXXX, and she is the oldest of five siblings. Her mother is intellectually handicapped. As a forth grader, XXXXX had assumed the role of parenting her younger siblings. They were a homeless family and had slept on the floor of a friend’s two room shed for two years. XXXXX spent time in cafeteria isolation on a regular basis. She was the victim of a cruel method which only increased her social isolation and distrust for her teacher/caregiver, and enhanced her feelings of helplessness and worthlessness…

The discipline called Friday Assessments is a marathon of weekly testing sessions lasting up to four hours every Friday. This non stop testing begins at the start of the school day on Friday and lasts until lunch and up to four hours. This weekly four hour test is said to be a need to check student progress; however, it has all the characteristics of a simulated STAAR test, which last four hours. The children work in isolation behind triboards as they do during the STAAR for security. This disguised Simulated STAAR is mentally and physically exhausting for young children. It causes them to become desensitized and lethargic…

Each child’s daily behavior report from the teacher is posted on the board for peers and others in the school to see. This is a punitive method of ABA for motivating children with fear and intimidation. This causes a child shame, anger, and resentment, as well as fear of additional punishment from home. This method serves as a threat throughout the day, and causes chronic stress and loss of trust in the teacher/caregiver. This method singles out a child for scapegoating by peers, and it conflicts with a child’s need for healthy attachment to the teacher/caregiver. This method of the New 3 R’s is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)…

The New 3 R’s uses a selective process for teachers and staff in order to
implement the program effectively into a school. There is a process of weeding out all teachers and staff who have objections to the methods of the system or who have recognition of the potential for psychological harm. The Right People means that everyone on the faculty must agree with the principal and not express any opposition or disagreement to the methods…

The gradual selective process of the Right People begins with flight, fight, or freeze, which are the normal reactions to a threat of abuse of power…

FLIGHT: Those teachers who were not indoctrinated into the system by the end of the second year, either transferred, retired, or were terminated…

FIGHT: The school counselor is the only one left on the faculty at present who has continued to point out the psychological abuse in the system. The counselor filed two formal grievances of child mistreatment to AISD Human Resources last school year, but no changes were made in the system. At this time the counselor has experienced the full victimization of bullying by the principal and AISD higher administration: Threats, scapegoating, alienation of faculty, and retaliation continued until the counselor was forced to take leave on 17 September. The counselor filed an EEOC grievance against AISD for retaliation on 17 September 2013, and is continuing to advocate for the children who are being exploited in an environment of psychological abuse…

FREEZE: Teachers who remained in the school are desensitized and loyal to the principal and the New 3 R’s System. They do not object to any of the punitive harmful methods nor do they empathize with the students. Teachers who function in chronic stress have similar symptoms as the students. They function in a “survive” mode rather than a “thrive” mode. They are robotic and scripted, emotionless, lack spontaneity and imagination, lack humor and flexibility. They are rigid and controlled. Their performance is measured by the test scores of their students, so they are dedicated to programming their students according to administrative directives. They obey orders without question. Many walk on eggshells for fear of making mistakes or displeasing the principal. They work very hard to keep up with the principal’s expectations and focus on their own performance. They are stern and demanding. They have lost the ability for imaginative play…


The New 3 R’s System is a rigid system of behavioral engineering that uses punitive methods of ABA which are known to cause psychological harm to young children. Some of the methods are known to cause mental illness and criminality. The New 3 R’s is a sophisticated system of bullying.

AISD administrators allowed the New 3 R’s System to be used in elementary schools for the purpose of obtaining high performance ratings on statewide tests, but without adequate oversight of mental health experts who would have recognized the potential for psychological abuse.

AISD has allowed administrators to use punitive methods of ABA in violation of certification requirements and with methods known to cause psychological damage to young children.

AISD administrators ignored the counselor’s reports of the New 3 R’s methods as being psychologically abusive to children, and retaliated against the counselor.

Children in Texas public elementary schools are entitled to have their mental and physical health protected by state law. There are currently no agencies with adequate laws in place to protect the rights of these children.

Has high-stakes testing has segued from equity to psychological imprisonment in Austin? Would you send your child to a school that uses these psychological tactics developed by an engineer?

p.s. To be honest. This post made me want to cry. So I did.

Update 11/14/13 1:13 p.m. I am receiving some heat for this post. Which is understandable. My number one priority is the children in our public schools— not my personal circumstance. If you are an AISD person reading this blog, I am 100% open to a response from the district as I am hearing this afternoon that they conducted an investigation. Email me the report from the investigation and I will post it immediately. Everything in this post has been in the public record for a month. Perhaps you take issue with the counselor’s professional opinion or with the facts presented. Also, if you are or were a teacher at this elementary school, I am also willing to publish your thoughts about 3Rs anonymously.

Update 11/14/13 4:38 p.m.  Joyce Feilke, the school counselor, sent the following photos and captions via email this afternoon to substantiate her narrative. I have never been inside the elementary school in question, so I cannot confirm they are from that location. They purportedly show the 4-hour testing isolation on Fridays and the lunch punishment tables. I obscured the faces of students and parents to protect their privacy.

Update 11/22/13 8:03 p.m. Mel Waxler, AISD attorney, contacted via email and stated (I only use the middle of his request to protect school personnel that he mentioned):

…Although the pictures do not expose faces, the identification of some of the students remains possible,  Also, employees of the campus who appear in the pictures and who have nothing to do with the allegations feel unfairly implicated…

To address AISD’s concern, I have concealed the persons in the photos with brush strokes in addition to face coverage so that neither students nor staff may be identified in the photos.

friday-assessments Ferpa protect

lunch-punishment ferpa

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Please blame Siri for any typos.


  • As a parent of AISD…I can say that many parents are scared however I am the one who stands up and fight back..because I am a parent who advocates for my child.and no one is going to mistreat my child in school…I am going through this right now…I will hold AISD accountable for any mistreatment of my child to full extent…parent needs to start pressing chargers in criminal courts to get anything done…not with the school.


  • I am perplexed by the thought that singling out elementary school students could be used as a consequence for failing to complete homework. I’ve never believed in using fear tactics in education. Schools should be welcoming, encouraging, and supportive of students, during their best moments and their worst. How can we expect to cultivate kind, understanding human beings if we are scaring them into doing a homework assignment? These schools must do better.


  • I am greatly saddened when I read this blog. There is so much slander by ignorant people who think that they are doing good. Many people are saying how Blaine Helwig was an industrial engineer but no one seems to mention what an outstanding job he has done as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal. No one seems to care whether the students in AISD are learning. Mr. Helwig cares. No one seems to care whether these students will be successful in school and successful in life. Mr. Helwig cares.

    There are so many ignorant people who claim that the methods used were to improve test scores. Test scores reflect student learning and preparation for life. The scores are high because THE STUDENTS ARE LEARNING. The ignorant psychologists make inflammatory statements about how, “The most common symptoms begin with signs of desensitization, anxiety, loss of imagination, loss of spontaneity, loss of humor, regression, irritability, self injury, inability to concentrate, and dissociation…” Has anyone observed these symptoms at the demonized schools? Does anyone believe that you can have student success like Blaine Helweg has had on mind numbing test like the STAAR if the students have an, “inability to concentrate?” Is there ANY record of student self-injury at these schools? My experience is that when a student is doing well in school they have high self-esteem and the above symptoms are not present. Was ANY of this checked before the slander or was it Ass_U_Me_D? It appears that with schools this sized, you would have had numerous teacher and parent complaints if there was abuse. Where are the complaints? Is there a record of parents THANKING Mr. Helwig for helping their child become successful in school? Maybe there was JUST STRUCTURE. Maybe?

    I suppose that I am just old school. Perhaps we should just give every child a trophy and let them fail. That is often what happens in public education – particularly in Title 1 schools (low social-economic students). It really isn’t important if they learn – as long as they are never criticized and held accountable for their behavior. We can keep telling them they are doing a good job even when they are not. This way we will not have to be around when they have low self-esteem and consider themselves failures as adults. You people should CHECK THE FACTS. Then you should be ashamed of yourselves. You have probably killed this program with your ignorance and self-righteousness and all of the students who would have benefited from it are now lost. How sad for the children. How sad.


    • No, not give every child a trophy……give every child a safe and nurturing environment where they are treated with respect and validated, not emotionally abused and used to perform for a narcissistic principal. Blaine Helwig is not the principal at this school described by this whistleblower, so it is unclear why you are whining about him. The principal at this school is Betty Jenkins.She was previously removed from her job as principal at Bouldin Creek Elementary, where she attempted to use these same methods of psychological abuse. Fortunately, the parents at Bouldin Creek, who are a well educated group in a higher socio eco area, would not tolerate this treatment to their children and Jenkins was out the door her first year there. Sadly, the parents in the Title I area of AISD are low socio eco, mostly minority, and fearful of school authority. They will not speak up about this abusive treatment, nor can they recognize it as psychological abuse because of its covert and deceptive nature. All the teachers there now have been throughly indoctrinated with “the Good German Syndrome”, and this system has become standard for the disadvantaged minority children of Austin. This system is training the poor children of AISD to adapt to an oppressive environment, which is a covert way of creating a culture of slave labor. Your lament about Blaine Helwig is disturbing. This is not about one man’s grandiose ego, it is about children who have no voice and are victims of sociopathic principals who are spreading their Machiavellian methods with the expertise of the Nazis. “Helwig” is German, right?


  • This is so heartbreaking. I only just now found this. What has happened since Feilke’s report? I googled some search terms for news but found nothing.


  • Want to see teacher abuse, go to any KIPP. We, teachers are told to have students look down when they walk with line arms and a bubble in their mouth.


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  • Out Sourcing Social Emotional Learning for Elementary Children is a Travesty!

    Learning about child development and children’s social and emotional needs has always been an important part of teacher education? Practicing those skills with children, validating children, and helping children learn to interact appropriately with each other is included in field experience, student teaching, and practicums for all teacher education programs in the state. It doesn’t make sense to spend millions contracting for outside services to teach SEL skills that teachers are supposed to have mastered for teacher certification in Texas?

    Good teachers acquire these skills in their university programs, and then build on them through experience and daily interactions of positive behavior with their students.

    It is as important for teachers to teach (model) SEL for their students as it is to teach reading or math. Could someone from our university teacher programs please comment on why AISD has to spend millions on an outside contractor to teach children what teachers are certified to do, and are supposed to do as a very important part of their job? Why is CASEL getting money that needs to stay with the teachers and support what only they can do best? Perhaps that would help prevent “punitive” methods like those described in the article?


  • Time for school policy makers to pay attention. Are you listening AISD?

    Diane Ravitch: Speaking Truth to Power


  • Texas Parents Opt Out

    30 year veteran counselor, Joyce Feilke did what was expected of a school employee; she filed a report that detailed her observations (it’s not a study). AISD responded the way they always do; they bullied the messenger and have since been working overtime to conceal the truth. Joyce had no reason to lie. Her job is to protect children. AISD has every reason to lie. It seems as though their only objective is to protect themselves. SEL (social and emotional learning) is a joke. How can children learn/acquire healthy social and emotional habits when they are frequently denied recess and opportunities for cooperative learning? AISD’s unhealthy fixation on test scores victimizes children and denies them a rich and meaningful education. On Wednesday, the St. David’s Foundation announced that they were giving the district an additional 1 million dollars to promote social and emotional learning. That money could be well spent on hiring more counselors. AISD will no doubt just hand that money over to CASEL.


    • The issue of AISD “denying” and continuing to use punitive methods and model behaviors that are “opposite” of what SEL is supposed to teach is the ELEPHANT in the room.

      The punitive “simulated 3-4 hour STAAR Friday Assessments” are continuing in specific Title I Schools that have now been identified. SEL that is being promoted to the public is not in practice. This ambivalence is evidence of the district’s dysfunction. It is also evidence of CASEL’s failure to monitor the effectiveness of the “product” they are selling.


    • Texas Parents Opt Out

      I think the “study” mentioned in Wayne’s comment was referring to AISD’s inadequate investigation. My opinion is that this shows a lack of oversight and mismanagement by AISD administration, since we now have heard from teachers in the district who are actually administering the Friday Assessments for 3-4 hours weekly, and have been for about 5 years. Torture for kids!


    • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

      Of course it’ll be handed over to CASEL. Political back scratching between private and public officials and the “dynamic” of political aggrandizement, -To help the students?- within the current American, indeed, world-wide political environment is a phenomenon that could be studied. This is not unique to AISD and this “dynamic” has grown over the past decades with “privatization” and the necessity of “leaders” to work the politics of this “dynamic.” This is one of the “Social Justice” issues of our time! Google: International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In)Justice


  • I’m still trying to find out what’s going on with my own child regarding special needs education. I was denied access to records and received no communication by AISD after multiple attempts. I’m glad this informative site is here my experience with AISD has been an absolute nightmare.


  • Any Study (opinion?) which chooses one student’s experience as anecdotal evidence of their belief automatically loses credibility.


    • Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.

      What study?
      To what study are you referring? The Austin ISD evaluation was not a “study” as such from my point of view. My understanding is that an independent “study” was requested and denied in favor of an AISD evaluation (study)?


  • Joyce Murdock Feilke

    Letter in response to email from a concerned Austin ISD Board of Trustees Member:

    Dear (Trustee Name Withheld)

    Thank you for your continued concern about this situation. I trust that you will keep an open mind until we have an opportunity to discuss it in a more appropriate setting. I will send a copy of the report I gave to Senator Jane Nelson, and I will welcome the opportunity to meet with you or other board members after you have reviewed it. I appreciate your honest opinion and taking time to listen to the history of this story.

    To clear up some confusion, my report described “methods” in the principal’s system that are punitive, and not “teachers” as your email stated. I have worked with most of the teachers for several years, and I recognize them to be hard workers who have been doing what is expected of them to the best of their ability. However, some of the methods and behaviors they have been expected to use are punitive. Accusations of he/said she/said will only deflect from the real issue. The real issue is to focus on this system that uses punitive methods and behaviors that are recognized through research and mental health experts to create an invalidating environment for children – an invalidating environment that is recognized to have potential for permanent psychological harm.

    The focus of my report was based on a school where I have observed punitive methods and dysfunctional dynamics of an engineered system first hand, but there is now validation to show it has become pervasive throughout other schools in AISD. That is believed to be the cause of what appears to be AISD administration’s intense efforts to conceal this from the public. Blackshear is not singled out, since this is a district wide problem. As long as AISD continues to ignore and deny these punitive methods are being used and exploit employees by attempting to conceal it, those of us who recognize the potential for harm to children will continue to work to expose it and demand accountability.

    My report was intended to be educational and show how an over emphasis on testing prep has created a toxic environment for children. What AISD’s investigation shows is that we need an awareness campaign for school administrators and teachers to recognize punitive methods and behaviors that cause an “invalidating” environment, and learn the skills to “validate” children. What we actually have looks like an ambivalent system that spent vast amounts of taxpayer dollars to out source SEL training from CASEL and promote it publicly; but, behind “closed doors” AISD has continued to train principals and teachers to use the punitive methods and behaviors in this regimented system that models negative behavior for children. Children are the helpless victims of this dysfunctional system and they are the ones who will suffer the most permanent damage, not the teachers who were involved.

    Psychological erosion is a gradual process in children, just as it is gradual in the physical environment of nature. CPS is not equipped to observe this unless they set up residency for a period of time with experienced social workers in the school, and it is highly unlikely CPS was given an opportunity to observe the punitive methods described in my report while visiting the school. AISD is not capable of investigating their own systemic dysfunction, since their efforts appeared to focus more on protecting themselves, rather than examining the facts of my report, taking accountability, and making efforts to correct it.

    Mental health professionals across the country are seeing an epidemic of disorders in younger children that continues to soar, especially anxiety and depression. My report brought this anxiety generating environment closer to home in AISD with specific details. Protecting children’s mental health was the purpose of my report, and it continues to be the purpose of my advocacy. My “agenda” was never to “damage teachers reputations,” and that premise may have been used to detract from the real issue. I would like to request that we focus on the real issue. The real issue is the invalidating environment created by the unnecessary over emphasis on performance and test prep in AISD elementary schools using punitive methods recognized to have potential for psychological damage to children.

    I will look forward to an opportunity to visit with you in more detail about this report, as well as suggestions for mental health intervention and monitoring in schools using this system.


    Joyce Murdock Feilke

    This letter is an expression of my professional opinion and does not reflect the opinions of my employer.


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  • Joseph Schumpeter

    David Bornstein Protecting Children from Toxic Stress

    “Imagine if scientists discovered a toxic substance that increased the risks of cancer, diabetes and heart, lung and liver disease for millions of people. Something that also increased one’s risks for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression — and simultaneously reduced the chances of succeeding in school, performing well on a job and maintaining stable relationships? It would be comparable to hazards like lead paint, tobacco smoke and mercury. We would do everything in our power to contain it and keep it far away from children. Right?”

    Wrong! Sorry David…AISD has presented a report to the public that acknowledges they will ignore advice from mental health experts and continue to use puntive methods of their choice…punitive methods that have been pointed out to them as a cause of toxic stress for young children leading to the mental and physical disorders that you described. AISD continues to use the punitive methods, which they have disguised to the public as “positive”, because they operate behind closed doors without supervision. After all, the punitive methods enhance children’s performance ratings on tests and bring fame and celebrity to the AISD Bourgeoise. Is there a word that describes this?


    • Joseph- You got my attention thanks to David Bornstein! It makes me want to go put yellow crime scene tape around my son’s school and paint a skull & cross bones on the front door.
      My 8 year old is a typical “little professor” who will probably design the space craft for Mars. However, when he had trouble sitting through his recent battery of boring MOY STAAR tests and the principal suggested that he may need meds for ADHD, I decided it was the curriculum that needed an evaluation.You can now call me a “Mommie”!

      To answer your question:
      The word that comes to mind cannot be put on this prestigious blog ; however, I can offer a term for AISD’s “relationship”with testing that we used in the military: FUBAR


  • The AISD superintendent and principal’s initial absolute denial of using the “cafeteria punishment” for incomplete homework was manipulated in the survey to become an “opportunity” for any child to sit in isolation during their lunch period and work on homework.

    I am not fooled. If it quacks like a duck…….


  • Educational Policy vs Mental Health

    The blog opinions present a conflict of school policy issues and mental health issues.
    I will speak from a mental health perspective:

    It is not possible for AISD to investigate its own dysfunction. In society, that is when people get outside help from experts? For example, posting of a color coded behavior chart in public view for kindergarten children has been confirmed by both psychologists and Applied Behavior Specialists as punitive since it creates anxiety for young children. Each child is different. For HSC children, getting a “red” on their chart can be traumatic. According to the National Institutes of Health, anxiety diagnosis in children has skyrocketed to 25% and is now the most frequent mental disorder in children and adolescents. Anxiety in childhood is shown by research to lead to personality disorders that manifest in early adulthood. In other words, a method that is recognized by mental health experts to cause anxiety in children, and can lead to mental illness, is excused by AISD because school policy states that it is acceptable as stated below:

    “While some teachers use a daily behavior chart, results of the student and parent survey do not indicate that students feel fearful and intimidated. This allegation as stated is unfounded.”

    AISD has dismissed the assessment of mental health experts and chosen to continue a punitive method based on their own survey from students and parents who cannot speak for all children but allows a punitive method because it works for some teachers? This is counter to what healthy SEL is supposed to teach in the schools and evidence of CASEL’s failure to educate teachers how to recognize punitive methods or how to teach and model positive behavior for children.

    Teachers need to model positive behavior for children and teach them relationship skills through practice of positive social interactions rather than punishment for their mistakes. AISD has invested vast sums of money into an SEL program from CASEL that is not teaching the teachers skills that are evident in practice, nor teaching school administrators to recognize punitive methods. Is there any psychologist or ABA Specialist who would agree with AISD and state that this method of posting kindergartners behavior is “positive”?

    School administrators and educational policy makers using their authoritarian voice to discount mental health concerns for children may be a cause of the soaring rates of anxiety
    that now impacts 25% of the nation’s children.


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