Helping a Bullied Child

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 11:06 AM

One day in May 2004, a student at Short Pump Elementary School in Henrico County, Va., walked up to fourth-grader David Henck in the cafeteria and said, "It would be a holy day if you were shot dead by a sniper."

That single incident would have been bothersome enough to David and his parents, Bill and Leigh Henck, but it was not the first time children at Short Pump Elementary had been cruel to David. He has Asperger Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder marked in part by social clumsiness. He was, as his father put it, a bully magnet, and his parents did not think the school was doing enough to help him.

I am telling this story based almost entirely on Bill Henck's account. I asked the Henrico County school system for a response, but at first got only two short and relatively general statements from the superintendent, which did not surprise me in the least. I have been investigating several cases of communication between parents and school officials in difficult circumstances, and the standard official response to the parents, and to any reporters who might inquire, is often as little a response as possible.

I don't blame the school officials for this. It seems to me, and the bizarre twists of the Henck case buttress that impression, that the educators are doing only what their lawyers tell them to do. I don't have any cure for this, but I think relating what happened to the Hencks, and how they achieved the momentary but still remarkable milestone of getting the Short Pump Elementary principal indicted for perjury, will dramatize what an awful problem we have in parent-school relationships, and how it might be a good time to get people other than attorneys involved.

The tale of David Henck and the bullies of Short Pump Elementary began long before what the hearing officer in their special education transfer case called "the sniper incident." Students had been mean to David throughout his fourth-grade year, but he did not tell his parents about it until February 2004. When his parents called his teacher, she admitted that she "was aware of earlier incidents of bullying, but had not notified us," Bill Henck said. The teacher was not identified publicly and not made available for comment.

At least three students harassed David. He told his parents he regularly informed the teacher of what was happening, and more than once she spoke to the students and sent them to the principal's office. But after the sniper incident, the Hencks decided their child, because of his disability, had to transfer to another school for his safety and mental health, a decision that they felt was particularly wise when they learned later that the child who made the sniper comment was never given detention or even a suspension for that offense.

When the Hencks made the transfer request, common under special education rules, the Henrico County officials said Short Pump, and only Short Pump, was the proper placement for David, also a common response in such cases. The Hencks transferred David to a local private school anyway and asked a due process hearing officer to grant their request that the school district pay their $9,950 tuition bill for the 2004-2005 school year.

Many parents who have struggled with the special education rules and procedures will assume that what happened next was not good. Across the country, the parents of disabled children are at war with our nation's public education system, but their battles have become so common and so futile that journalists like me rarely write about them, in the same way that we often overlook whatever bloody little conflicts are going on in the Third World.

I have attended special education due process hearings and watched the school system attorneys hired to save taxpayer dollars politely eviscerate the parents seeking more services or a payment for private school. Often the parents are more or less defenseless against a competent lawyer, since they often cannot afford to hire their own attorney. A whole sector of the bar, lucrative to many of the private specialists, is devoted to what seems to me, at least in part, the science of intimidating, humiliating and defeating parents in these cases. Some of the lawyers attend conferences designed to teach them the latest tricks, all of which is completely legal in our adversarial system.

According to Bill Henck, Tom Tokarz, the attorney for the Henrico County attorney's office who defended the school system in the case, took such an aggressive approach that by the end of the hearing the Hencks were absolutely furious, which might explain why they went so far to confront the county after the hearing.

Bill Henck said the school system failed to honor the Henck subpoena for information in the case. He said Tokarz badgered and verbally abused Leigh Henck when he spoke to her before and during the hearing in October 2004. He said Tokarz waved his hands in his wife's face and berated her several times, including mispronouncing her name in a demeaning way. Leigh Henck pronounces her first name "Lay," but her husband said Tokarz twice pronounced it "Lie" and then smirked and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. Did I mispronounce your name?"

Tokarz, a 25-year veteran of due process hearings, said these accusations were "exaggerated and unwarranted." He said: "I don't recall waving my hands in Mrs. Henck's face, and my pronunciation of Mrs. Henck's name was unintentional because it is not pronounced as it is spelled. Furthermore, although some people may regard it as mean or harassing, vigorous cross-examination is a time-tested way of trying to get to the truth."

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