Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Autistic teen at center of school furor on behavior

By Barbara O’Brien - The Buffalo News

ALLEGANY — The story of an autistic high school student forcibly restrained by school officials attracted national attention last year when the New York Times reported about his parents’ complaints.

Eight months later, outrage still is evident in this Cattaraugus County community, only now it belongs to the parents of the student’s classmates. They say their children are put at risk because school administrators refuse to protect them from the autistic teenager.

These parents have formed a group, taken out ads in the local newspaper urging attendance at School Board meetings and attended board meetings in the last three months to express their concerns. They say they are not targeting one student in particular or specialneeds students in general.

But when one student yells, runs down the hall and engages in behavior that can be viewed as violent or bizarre, they say that it interferes with their children’s ability to learn. And the district, they contend, is not doing enough to protect the other students.

“I’m putting you all on notice right now: If anything happens to my daughter in this school system, or any other child for that matter, because of your inaction on these matters, I’m going to hold all of you legally responsible,” parent David Nolan told the Allegany-Limestone School Board.

Court case is factor

The father of the 16-year-old youth whose story garnered national attention last year said the parents are less concerned about safety than they are about getting his son out of the school. The father and other parents asked that The Buffalo News not use the student’s name out of fear that he would be further stigmatized.

“This group has disseminated false information,” the father said. “What they are doing is very disruptive and hurtful to my child.”

“We’re in the middle of a tough situation as a district and as a community,” School Superintendent Diane Munro said. “Student safety is No. 1. We just have a difference, apparently, about what constitutes safety.”

The difference has shattered the calm in the rural school district, which is awaiting a federal court ruling on a challenge to the restraints placed on the autistic student when he was in sixth grade.

The student, now about 6 feet tall, is in his second year in high school and rides the bus to the high school, which has an enrollment of about 450. Some classmates have said they are frightened by his loud outbursts and other behavior. And their parents wonder whether the school is treating him lightly in view of the court case.

Parents say their children have reported seeing the student running down the halls, acting inappropriately in a bathroom of the middle school, glaring at a younger student and saying he didn’t like her, and asking who the popular students are, which they view as an attempt to target students.

While the behavior might be unnerving, it is not unusual for a person with autism, said the student’s father. His son sometimes is loud and disruptive, he said, and the teenager also has made lists since he was a child.

Photos add to discord

“Absolutely, he’s different,” the father said. “Look at him, he’s different. Listen to him talk. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be in that setting.”

He maintains that his son is not a danger to others, and he denies rumors that the youth has killed animals. He has two pet cats, the father said.

“We all feel sorry for this child. It’s not his fault,” said one of the parents concerned about safety. “As a parent, I would want to do everything in my power to see that my child got a good education, which is not happening.”

Is it a case of intolerance? Or are the behaviors identified by parents warning signs that the school is ignoring?

The school superintendent will not discuss the particulars of any student, and parents have avoided naming students when they have talked with the School Board. The superintendent has met privately with concerned parents and has said publicly she is confident that students are safe in Allegany- Limestone schools.

Still, some parents disagree.

Discord is evident at board meetings, and parents called local police after the father took photographs of them when they addressed the board.

The father said he took the photos because he wanted to know who was making the statements, and he said the parent group has knowingly spread false information.

“The behavior of this parent group is elevating and feeding disruptive behavior,” he said.

Students with disabilities were excluded from fully participating in school for years. Placing such students in the regular classroom, or the least restrictive environment, not only is the goal of the inclusion movement, it is federal law.

‘Equal access’ at issue

“It’s really about access to the general education curriculum. There can’t be equal access in a segregated environment,” said Michelle A. Hickman, assistant professor in exceptional education at Buffalo State College.

But there is a difference between physical inclusion, she said, and meaningful participation. Special-needs students require the proper support services to successfully integrate into the classroom.

Parent Marcia Wymer told the board at a recent meeting that she has written two letters about the safety issue, as well as talked with school officials. She said she was told that her information was not fully accurate and that she was promoting fear in her children.

“We do not feel that the school has been candid about proactive measures being taken to assure the safety of our children. We have been told that there is constant adult supervision taking place to keep our children safe,” Wymer told the School Board.

But if this were true, she said, her daughter would not have been scared about a comment made about her, and her son would not have been asked who the “popular” students are.

‘Watching very closely’

Not all students are afraid. One senior told the School Board he has no problem with the student.

“Though he has had certain interactions that could be considered outbursts of his condition, he has not struck me as dangerous. Not once have I feared for my safety,” Daniel Jaremco said. “He is a talented individual and deserves the right to a fair and just representation in the school and a fair and just education.”

Munro maintains that the schools are safe. “We are watching very closely, and we are taking every step available to us for student safety,” she said.

The father of the specialneeds child said the district’s close monitoring of his son in the last several months has provoked some disruptive behavior. He was doing so poorly late last year that his parents took him out of school in December, and he was tutored at home. He has gradually started returning to classes, the father said.

“I am in agreement it was disruptive. That’s why we took him out,” he said, but he insisted, “Who has he endangered?”

Students feel threatened, some parents say. They said that the district dealt swiftly and decisively with students who brought a BB gun to school but that it has not done the same with special-needs students.

Inappropriate behavior can be punished, Hickman said, but it won’t do any good if the person does not have an appropriate behavior to take its place. Children with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, who have difficulty communicating, may use inappropriate behavior as a communicative tool, she said.

But certain behavior can’t be ignored. “If there is a danger to other students,” she said, “you can’t overlook that just because the student has a disability.”

Which leaves the school with the dilemma of how to balance the needs and rights of all students.

“That’s the question of the day,” Munro said. “Whether or not we’re successful is a matter of perspective.”


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