The experiment, Ernest Whitmarsh would later concede in court, might be considered extreme.
Whitmarsh, a school psychologist in Cobb County, needed to diagnose why a student named Libby Beem acted out so much. So in a fake classroom in a special school, he would sit alone with Libby, trying to incite the very outbursts that got her into trouble – outbursts that typically led to Libby’s hurting herself.
He would prod her using the same triggers that caused her to yank out her hair, or stab herself with a pencil, or poke her eyes, or claw at her skin until she drew blood.
And, in case Libby turned her rage on him, Whitmarsh would wear protective clothing.
“One of the most frustrating things I have to deal with,” Whitmarsh said later, “is if I go to a mechanic with my car and my car is not doing the problem that I brought it there for, the mechanic can’t diagnose it. So he’s going to test certain things to see the problems happen. That’s the same situation here.”
Whitmarsh’s proposed experiment underscores the unorthodox approach Georgia takes with children who have severe emotional, behavioral and psychiatric disorders. Georgia is the only state that operates a network of psychoeducational schools that segregate such children from those who don’t have disabilities, often in aging buildings that black children occupied in the Jim Crow era. Federal authorities allege the schools – formally known as the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, or GNETS – violate students’ rights to be educated in the least-restrictive appropriate setting.
At the same time, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia’s public schools assign a disproportionate number of black students to the GNETS programs. In practice, GNETS students are segregated not just by disability but also by race.
Whitmarsh declined to be interviewed. Because of federal privacy laws, he wrote in an email, “I cannot comment about a specific student.”
But he has repeatedly defended his methods while conducting similar experiments on other children. His intent, he once testified in court, was to “extinguish inappropriate behavior.”
This experiment’s subject, Libby Beem, still suffered post-traumatic stress from the abuse and neglect she experienced in a Chinese orphanage. She often drew pictures of babies in cages, surrounded by large, menacing adults.
Libby’s parents worried that by continually striking the raw nerves of her memory, Whitmarsh would cause irreversible harm.
At the time, Libby was 9.
‘Only one track’
Julie and David Beem already had three other children when they adopted a baby from China. The little girl they named Anna Elizabeth – Libby – was 20 months old but functioned more like a 6-month-old. She couldn’t walk yet. She still didn’t eat solid food. She had experienced what Julie Beem recently called “a gross level of neglect.”
Physically, Libby caught up quickly. But her language skills lagged, and her emotions erupted in ways that only worsened after she started pre-kindergarten.
Special-education teachers at Libby’s school, Birney Elementary, initially said she had developmental delays. But they later documented intense episodes in which Libby kicked furniture, hit and scratched teachers, and dug bloody wounds into her arms with her fingernails. She threatened suicide.
In third grade, teachers gave Libby a test that asked her to complete sentences:
When I get mad –
“I kick, punch holes in the wall, punch people.”
When I break something –
“I kill people.”
For another test, teachers asked Libby why a character in a story wanted to be alone. Libby replied, “Because her mom rose from the dead.”
When they asked what the character wanted to do, Libby said, “Die.”
The school relabeled Libby as having an emotional and behavior disorder, then amended her file again to say the disorder was “severe.” Her mother agreed to the changes, she said recently, only because school officials promised that Libby would be eligible for more therapies.
Third grade was especially difficult. Her behavior became more disruptive, more violent. By February, Libby had received 10 days of out-of-school suspension that school year, and her teachers had run out of patience. School administrators insisted Libby’s parents send her to the Fitzhugh Lee School – a part of HAVEN Academy, one of the state’s 24 GNETS programs.
When Beem toured Fitzhugh Lee, she encountered a boy hanging out a first-story window, struggling with a man who eventually pulled him back inside. She later learned the child was trying to escape from a seclusion room.
Inside, she saw a staff member holding another child face down on a hallway floor. Beem’s guide told her to step around the child and keep walking.
Everywhere she looked, Beem said recently, she saw chaos: children crying, teachers fussing – a din that would only further agitate Libby. The school’s atmosphere, Beem said, seemed “authoritarian.”
About the same time, the Georgia Advocacy Office, which represents disabled people in institutions, received a complaint involving another student at Fitzhugh Lee. When that boy, identified in court documents as “S.,” presented “challenging behaviors,” the advocacy office said, teachers tethered him with a dog leash.
The school district settled the lawsuit, and a lawyer with the advocacy office, Josh Norris, said Fitzhugh Lee stopped using leashes. But a judge sealed most of the case file. A “major factor” in the district’s resolving the case, the judge wrote, was the decision to “maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the allegations.”
Ernest Whitmarsh joined the Cobb school district’s behavioral unit in 2002. He is certified as a school psychologist by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which regulates educators, and earned $69,598 from Cobb last year. He has never been licensed in Georgia as a practicing clinician.
One day in November 2005, at a teacher’s invitation, Whitmarsh spent about 50 minutes in Libby Beem’s classroom at Birney Elementary. During that time, he said later, she became “visibly upset” over an unfinished math assignment.
“I was mainly concerned when I saw her poke her head with the pencil and when she screamed and cried over what appeared to be a very minor situation,” Whitmarsh said.
From that brief observation, Whitmarsh devised an experiment: Libby would be reassigned to Fitzhugh Lee, where Whitmarsh would set up what he called an “analogous classroom” that contained the furniture, books, computers and other fixtures to which Libby would be accustomed. No other students, not even a teacher, would be present. Whitmarsh alone would sit with Libby three hours a day, for eight to 10 weeks, trying to figure out what might provoke her into an outburst. Then he would do whatever bothered her.
He might make sudden loud noises or tell her she had performed tasks incorrectly. He might order her to complete assignments in subjects she hated. He might ignore her altogether.
No matter how Libby responded, whether she threw school supplies or struck herself in the head, Whitmarsh would simply watch, he said later. A colleague in the next room would take notes on Libby’s reactions. The notes could be used later to develop a treatment plan.
Ethics principles published by the National Association of School Psychologistssay such assessments should rely on techniques “that the profession considers to be responsible, research-based practice.” School psychologists also should take into account a student’s “disabilities, cultural, linguistic and experiential background,” the association says.
Libby’s parents first heard about the proposed experiment during a meeting at the school. Julie Beem said that’s when Whitmarsh mentioned his plan to wear protective clothing – “so I didn’t need to worry about him.”
The Beems refused to let Libby participate in the experiment. They hired a lawyer and took the school district to court.
The Beems alleged that forcing Libby to attend a GNETS program — and then subjecting her to behavioral experimentation — violated her rights to an appropriate education. The Cobb school district stood by Whitmarsh’s proposal.
The case went to trial before a state administrative law judge in September 2006.
Early in his two days of testimony, Whitmarsh said he had designed a “functional behavior analysis” that would determine what induced Libby’s self-harming outbursts. He would concentrate on external factors, not her emotional state.
“I think it’s kind of defeatist to say any behavior can’t be controlled by the environment,” Whitmarsh testified, “because we all have behaviors that we have that appear to be non-behaviorally based but can benefit from behavioral treatment.”
He acknowledged, the experiment could be considered extreme, “if we’re talking about a spectrum.” He said he had suspended similar experiments that seemed to imperil his young subjects. In one, Whitmarsh and his colleagues tried to coax a disabled student into saying his name. The stress of the experiment made the child try to injure himself.
The Beems’ lawyer, Chris Vance, suggested Whitmarsh’s experiment would have the same effect on Libby.
“You were going to ignore her behavior in one of your hypotheses, right?” she asked, according to the trial’s transcript. “You were just going to ignore it?”
“Yes,” Whitmarsh answered.
“How do you do that when a child is self-mutilating?”
“Well, you know,” Whitmarsh said, “there are a number of target behaviors and … you would have to be careful and make sure that you don’t go over a limit that you set.”
“At what point was the cutoff going to be? How much harm did she have to do to herself before you stopped the program?”
“We were going to follow policy,” Whitmarsh replied, “just like we would with any other kid, and if we thought a child was creating a situation where they were hurting themselves, we had nurse support in the building.”
The answer, Vance said recently, shocked her.
“I did not know,” Whitmarsh said, “what the cutoff point was going to be.”
Judge John B. Gatto ordered the school district to drop Whitmarsh’s planned experiment. But Gatto said the district could transfer Libby into the GNETS program, regardless.
The Beems instead enrolled Libby in the Georgia Cyber Academy, an online charter school. She repeated a year after the tumult of third grade, but otherwise performed well.
Libby is 19 now. She is obviously bright, although she speaks with a barely noticeable impediment. She swims and rides horses and draws pictures that no longer mirror the darkness of her infancy. She says she has learned to recognize and avoid situations that might trigger an eruption.
She will graduate from high school this month – with honors.
One recent morning in her family’s basement, part of which is converted into her classroom, Libby waited for her next class to begin online. She told her mother she might never have earned a regular-education diploma if she had gone through Whitmarsh’s experiment at Fitzhugh Lee.
Her mother gently asked why she didn’t just change her behavior.
“I couldn’t,” Libby said. “That’s the point. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.”