Originally created 03/10/01

Pair take son out of class



The father of the special education pupil who has been accused of disrupting his Garret Elementary School classroom said Friday he will comply with Richmond County school officials wishes and put his son in an alternative classroom setting.

The father, who did not want his name or his son's name made public, said he notified Charles Larke, the Richmond County superintendent of schools, of his decision Friday afternoon.

"We're also very upset with the way this has been handled," he said during a brief telephone interview Friday evening. "Our son did not stab anyone."

He said his son's teacher threatened to sue him after the pupil tried to pull away from her and allegedly made her hurt her back.

"That's why she had to go the hospital," he said. "But she's like 65."

He said that much of what Richmond County Board of Education members and parents were saying at Thursday night's meeting was simply untrue.

At that meeting, the school board authorized attorney Pete Fletcher to seek a court order that would have expelled the pupil from school.

The child allegedly choked, stabbed, kicked and punched at everyone around him, according to school board members, parents and Dr. Larke.

He also has purportedly overturned desks, thrown books and a VCR across the classroom and hit another pupil in the face with his shoe.

His father said not all of those things are true. "A lot of this is politics," he said.

But Beth Flynt, whose son is a classmate of the special education pupil, said she has photos to show the destruction one child can do. During one rampage, the boy came within inches of plunging a pencil into her son's eye, Mrs. Flynt said.

Dr. Larke had been prepared to assign a plainclothes police officer and another teacher to the classroom to help protect the other pupils.

Until Friday, the parents of the pupil had refused to move him from the classroom.

Because the child has been identified as a special needs pupil, he is protected by a federal law that prohibits a child with disabilities from being expelled for disability-related behavioral problems without parental consent.

Courts have generally found that the 1975 Education of the Handicapped Act prevents school districts from suspending or expelling children with disabilities for behavior related to their disability.

The 1992 case of Light vs. Parkway C-2 School District established the two-part test school districts must give themselves when trying to remove an "allegedly dangerous" child from the classroom. First, officials must determine whether the current placement threatens injury to others. Second, the school district must make reasonable accommodations for the child before changing placement.

"In the old days when you had a child disrupting a classroom, the school district would make a decision to put that child in a more restrictive setting, a change of placement under the law," Mr. Fletcher said Thursday night. "The law needs to be changed. ... When I go to court, what I have to do is I'm going to have to draft up a complaint, take people down there as witnesses and ask the judge for a restraining (order), and I hate having to do that because in the old days we could handle it in the school system."

A 1997 amendment to the act now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that special needs pupils be given equal access to mainstream classroom opportunities and that the child must "stay put" in his current class while due process and court proceedings are pending.

Because the parents of the unruly child initially had refused to take their son out of the class, there was very little the Richmond County Board of Education could do but seek a legal injunction.

Reed Martin, a Morgantown, W.V., attorney who specializes in court cases involving special education children, said the child has a right to be placed in the classroom and to receive an appropriate education.

Mr. Martin's 1978 book, Educating Handicapped Children - The Legal Mandate, established him as a national advocate for children with disabilities. He has worked on federal and state education commissions. He said in this case, Richmond County has to protect all its pupils.

He said Richmond County schools would have had to prove that there are no other means of educating this child in a classroom environment, including medicinal solutions.

Mr. Martin, who has represented more than 5,500 special needs pupils during his 30 years of legal practice, said Richmond County's decision to seek an injunction could have been precedent-setting.

The National School Boards Association and the Georgia School Boards Association have both been working to weaken the amendment and give local school officials more control over rare incidents such as this one, Mr. Martin and others said, but they have not succeeded.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Martinez) filed an amendment during the past session of Congress that would have given local school boards the power they need in situations such as the one at Garrett Elementary School. Although the amendment received more than 300 votes, the bill it was attached to failed.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Norwood said he intends to file the legislation during the current session but has yet to decided whether to attach it again to a larger bill or introduce it as its own bill.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.