BANGOR, Maine — David’s sixth-grade year didn’t go so well. Nor did seventh, eighth or ninth grade.
Because of his disruptive and at times explosive behavior, David spent months-long chunks of time during those four years on a two-hour-a-day school schedule or out of school altogether. He served numerous detentions and suspensions, and once had to be escorted screaming out of school by a police officer.
Now in tenth grade and diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and chronic depression, David, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is receiving support that his mother and legal advocates contend he has been eligible for all along. During the last school year he was on the honor roll and talks about going to college.
It’s been a remarkable transformation by any measure, but according to Diane Smith Howard, an attorney for the Augusta-based Disability Rights Center, David’s rights were violated for more than three years. Though Smith Howard says the center is advocating on David’s behalf, she would not discuss the details of its intervention or any legal process that is under way, if any.
“Under the law, everyone has a right to a free and equal education,” she said. “The exclusion of some kids from school improperly is discrimination.”
The Disability Rights Center’s core mission when it comes to public schools is to ensure that students receive special education services if they qualify for them. The issue of schools improperly excluding students from classes, along with therapeutic restraint and seclusion, are some of the most extreme measures schools use to deal with severe behavior problems in students, and according to Smith Howard, all three methods are in need of improvement in both policy and practice.
“Many school districts do a great job,” she said. “But there are some people who just don’t believe these disabilities are real.”
The only legal ways a school can exclude a student from school are suspension, expulsion or temporarily placing the child on an abbreviated school day. While on an abbreviated schedule, the student is supposed to receive counseling, tutoring or other services with the goal of reintegration into the normal school day, said Smith Howard. Schools are required to compile a risk assessment and develop an individualized education plan in a timely manner, but Smith Howard said too often that doesn’t happen.
“No one here is opposed to those children being placed away from other students if they’re dangerous, but a lot of times this risk-assessment process is used as an end run around providing those other services that the student needs,” said Smith Howard.
Aside from a general lack of motivation in the classroom, David often descended into severe frustration and angry clashes with his teachers. Two months into his sixth-grade year he had accumulated 11 disciplinary referrals and school officials were convinced that he didn’t have the social skills or poise to endure a full school day. As a result, his schedule was reduced to two hours a day with a tutor, secluded from the rest of the student body. That arrangement continued for 93 school days — more than twice what is now the legal limit — until April when he was enrolled by his family in a therapeutic education program at The Acadia Hospital in Bangor.
According to Louise, David’s mother, who asked that her last name not be published, both she and her son didn’t fully understand at that point that his behavior problems were direct symptoms of his mental illness.
“He couldn’t understand why he was being disciplined,” she said. “His self-esteem was just terrible. I had tried everything else in my power and it wasn’t going anywhere. We needed more support.”
David’s problems — which included numerous behavior outbursts, including at one point threatening to kill someone — continued similarly for the next three years, resulting in suspensions, numerous detentions and months-long periods of being on an abbreviated school day.
According to Katrina Ringrose, a Disability Rights Center advocate handling David’s case, much of David’s plight could have been avoided if the school department had agreed earlier to grant him special education supports such as social and coping skills training.
“This was despite their knowledge of all of his prior diagnoses,” said Ringrose.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a resolve instructing the Department of Education to make several changes to its Chapter 101 rule regarding abbreviated school days, including adding more stringent timelines for the process of reintegrating students into a regular schedule. This rule-making process is separate from the consensus-based rule-making effort that is ongoing for Chapter 33, which deals with therapeutic restraints and seclusions.
A public hearing is scheduled on the rule changes for 10 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31 in the Cross State Office Building in Augusta. The deadline for written comments, which may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Jaci Holmes, Federal State Legislative Liaison, Maine Department of Education, State House Station 23, Augusta 04333-0023, is 5 p.m. Nov. 11.