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"They stand there like, "Is it working, is it working?' Like those pills are little cure-alls that's going to make everything better," Armstrong says. "They just want to drug them all to make them easier to manage, but they don't know what the effect is going to be or what the long-term damage might be, either."
Earlier this year, when the school prescribed Wesley an antipsychotic called Seroquel commonly used to treat schizophrenics, Armstrong finally balked. Not only was she sick of feeding her son pills, but this prescription was going to cost $135 to fill. She simply refused.
Shortly after her refusal, a knock came on the door of her Fort Lauderdale home at 11 p.m. Armstrong got up out of bed only to find an investigator with the Department of Children and Families at her door. The school had filed an abuse complaint against her alleging "medical neglect." DCF found in Armstrong's favor, but she says the message was clear: The school was trying to force psychotropic drugs on Wesley against her will.
"That happens very, very rarely," Benson says. "Most of the time, parents work with us." Sally Creswell, a school board supervisor who oversees programs for all emotionally handicapped students, says the prescriptions are "generally accepted by the community" and adds that school psychiatrists "aren't there just to prescribe medication, they are actively involved in the plans for the kids."
Her boss, Fay Clark, who is in charge of the entire special ed program, says the drugs, while they may not work in every case, have been credited with making lives better, not only for students but also for their families. "You wouldn't believe how grateful some of these parents have been for this program," she says.
Armstrong was far from grateful. She contends that there is no way a psychiatrist who works just 25 hours a week for the school district can effectively treat the dozens of kids he sees at Sunset. Creswell concedes that it's not a lot of time. And other than the school psychiatrist, there aren't many staffers at the school who have backgrounds in medicine or psychology. Neither Lasky nor Benson, for instance, has a background in medicine or psychology. Most Sunset teachers have only special ed teaching certificates and have, Benson concedes, little or no special training in dealing with emotionally damaged children.What most bothers Armstrong is that the one thing Wesley had going for him -- his solid C academic performance at Westwood Heights -- has disappeared completely at Sunset. Armstrong believes it is the lack of academic challenge that is at the root of the school's problems. It's no wonder Wesley gets in trouble, she says: There's little else to do.
A visit to the school bears out her claim. In most classrooms there seems to be little interaction between teachers and students. In the "computer lab" and in music class, for instance, the children play video games while the teacher sits at his own computer, working quietly. The only classes, in fact, where any real teaching seems to be going on are the vocational classes, such as shop and horticulture.
Wesley's sixth-grade report card reveals F's in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies. His final GPA is a dismal 0.11. Why is he failing at Sunset? "When the teachers give me work, they don't explain it to me," Wesley says. "And if I can't understand it, how can I do it? At Westwood Heights, the teacher explained the work, and I understood it."
Somehow, despite his failing grades, Wesley nabbed two awards at the end of last year, one for "outstanding achievement" in social studies and another for "most improved" in reading -- two classes he failed. And at the bottom of that F-ridden report card was a single word typed in capital letters: PROMOTED.
His mother called the school and demanded to know how in the world her son could fail classes and still be promoted. Her persistent questioning uncovered an academic mess -- and a violation of federal laws by Sunset School.
Lasky, Sunset's principal, informed Armstrong that a terrible mistake had been made: Wesley would indeed be promoted; his teacher hadn't counted the work he did. The tests had been thrown out because of his poor conduct and all the time he spent in BTC.
To penalize Wesley academically for his misconduct is known as double jeopardy, and it's against the law. After Armstrong's phone call, Lasky says she went back and added up the tests that were initially disregarded, and a few weeks ago, Armstrong received a different report card from the school. This time Wesley received mostly C's and D's.
"He was doing work, but we weren't giving him credit for it," Lasky says. "The whole year, they screwed up. I don't know why it happened this way. I don't know how it fell through the cracks."
But double jeopardy wasn't the only broken law in Wesley's case. At SED schools any decision to promote a student must be made in what is called an Individual Education Plan meeting between the parent and various school administrators. Armstrong, however, was never consulted. Both Lasky and Benson concede that this oversight never should have happened, but neither can provide an explanation as to why it did.