For students with disabilities, discipline issues take toll

Julie Landry admits that her 8-year-old son, a rising third-grader in Fairfax County, is rambunctious, but she insists that he isn’t a troublemaker.

He’s autistic, a disability that makes him prone to outbursts. Those outbursts are misunderstood, Landry said, and some of his teachers and school administrators aren’t prepared to handle them properly. The boy’s classroom disruptions led to 11 days of suspensions last year, and at one point, he faced possible expulsion twice within six weeks.

Landry and her husband spent much of the past year going head-to-head with the county school system regarding their son’s discipline cases, which they say have been overblown and are affecting their family. “All these proceedings have put a financial and emotional strain on us,” she said.

In the 2011-12 school year in Fairfax County, students with disabilities made up 14 percent of the school population but represented 40 percent of discipline cases involving long-term suspensions. The county School Board voted last month to adopt a number of revisions to the district’s discipline policies — known as Student Rights and Responsibilities — including ­changes aimed at addressing the disproportionate number of cases involving students with disabilities.

Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services, said a new, tiered approach to discipline offers a range of consequences for certain infractions, a change that she said will help address the disparity. She said that with the new policies, “there are fewer behaviors where suspension and expulsion are mandatory.”

But Sheree Brown-Kaplan, founder of the Fairfax Alliance for Appropriate Public Education, an advocacy group for special education students, said the School Board did not approve any significant protections for students with disabilities.

“We realize our kids are a handful — we are the ones raising them,” Brown-Kaplan said. “But we just want our kids to be respected.”

As one of Fairfax’s most experienced advocates for children with disabilities, Brown-Kaplan advised Landry as she navigated the county’s process for resolving her son’s ­cases. A few days after the School Board’s vote on the discipline policies, Landry learned that her son had been accepted to attend a private school at public expense, as Fairfax administrators acknowledged that the public schools can’t meet his needs.

“I’d love for my kid to be in his base school, making connections with his peers in the neighborhood,” said Landry, a former special education teacher. “My child shouldn’t have to fail to get what he needs.”

Brown-Kaplan said several failed amendments by board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) to the discipline policies might have helped in cases similar to Landry’s.

One amendment that was voted down would have kept school administrators from requesting that students with intellectual or developmental disabilities provide a written statement after an alleged incident.

After an incident on April 5, Landry’s son was asked to write down what happened. The ­second-grader at Saratoga Elementary School had been accused of not complying with directions multiple times during a physical education class. Teachers and administrators complained that he began to run around the gym, yelling and throwing volleyballs. When teachers and administrators tried to restrain him, he resisted and flailed his arms, Landry said.

According to the school system, the boy punched, kicked, head-butted and bit multiple staff members. Three were injured and sought medical attention.

After the incident, administrators asked the boy for a statement. Frustrated by requests to describe the incident in writing, he scribbled his mother’s phone number and began to draw pictures of himself. The penciled doodles were later used as evidence in his expulsion case, Landry said.

“These are children who we shouldn’t expect to be capable of understanding [student rights] or being compliant like their non-disabled peers,” Schultz said. “To hold them to the same standard is absurd.”

Ultimately, a panel of school officials and special-education experts found that the actions of Landry’s son were caused by his disability, which saved him from facing expulsion.

An earlier incident, in which the boy tried to climb out of his school bus one morning, also was found to be caused by his disability; that expulsion case was also dropped.

That both of the boy’s most recent cases were found to be caused by his disability was a small victory for the Landry family. According to data from the school system, less than 20 percent of all cases with a recommendation for expulsion involving students with disabilities ended with a similar finding in the 2011-2012 school year.

But the boy was not allowed to return to Saratoga after the gym incident. Instead, he was reassigned in May to Laurel Ridge Elementary, a move that school system officials said was intended to protect staff members.

The family appealed the decision, and last month, the boy was accepted to the private Phillips School in Annandale. His tuition will be paid through grants from the Comprehensive Services Act, a state law that pays for needy students’ education.

Dockery said 297 Fairfax students, mostly those with disabilities, are enrolled in private settings at public cost.

Landry said she’s hopeful that the new setting will help her child grow and learn. She said she has fought hard to get him what she thinks he deserves.

“As a parent, the cards are stacked against you,” Landry said. “I thought, ‘Here’s a mom who is experienced in the field, who has a master’s degree in education, who thought she knew what she was doing.’ Boy, was I wrong.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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