Broward News

Broward Schools Denied Food, Bathroom to Autistic Child, Lawsuit Claims

Broward County Public Schools has, since 2014, received a torrent of criticism for the way it handles students with disabilities. In May of that year, a district-commissioned report found that special-needs students often endure gruelingly long bus rides, sit in classes that are far too large, and are managed by poorly trained teachers and personnel. Now, two families have filed motions in federal court, claiming the school district failed to develop proper care plans for their autistic children, and instead tried to push their kids out to private schools.

On Monday, yet another family filed a motion in federal court — this time, the mother and father of an 8-year-old autistic child claim the district repeatedly violated their son’s care plan, needlessly suspended him, physically restrained him to the point that he was scratched and bruised, segregated him in a trailer without access to food or a bathroom, and attempted to send him to a remedial program without notifying his parents.

The child’s parents have also filed multiple due process claims in court, and in 2015, a judge ruled that the Broward School District had violated the student’s rights, as well as his parents’.

In November of 2012, C., whose name has been withheld at his parents’ request, was five years old and attending preschool. At home, his parents say, he was largely calm and pleasant to be around. But at school, he was having meltdowns more and more often.

“He would get very agitated,” C’s father, who is 45 and lives in Fort Lauderdale, told New Times. “He might become defiant, might reach out physically the against preschool teachers. Sometimes, he ripped papers off the walls or off bulletin boards.”

They started taking their son to a host of behavioral therapists — in June 2012, C was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that left C’s verbal communication skills largely intact, but robbed him of his ability to comprehend many nonverbal cues. He was also found to be extremely sensitive to changes in light or sound, and would hide or act out when the environment around him became too confusing.

In November of 2012, C’s therapists finalized his first “Individualized Education Plan,” a legal document that lists the services a student with disabilities needs from a school, and, specifically, how a school should respond if a student has behavioral issues.

Eventually, C’s parents enrolled him in a pre-K program at the Broward School District, in 2013. After a meeting to develop a new IEP was held, C was placed in general education classes. Things started well, but C eventually began to act out more.

C “is usually observed getting red in the face, then teary but not crying, then welled tears subside, his fists clench, he smirks or smiles, then assaults adults, destroys materials, shoves furniture, kicks walls, spits at adults who are speaking to him, mocks who is speaking to him while moving quickly around the environment,” a school official wrote, according to court documents.

Before C started first grade, his parents, according to a 2015 judge’s order, tried to address one concern with school administrators — their son had developed a troubling pattern, wherein he would knowingly “act out” in order to be removed from class.

Within the first few weeks of the school year, C was given two detentions, a verbal warning, a five-day suspension, and a “referral to law enforcement.”

“That started the nonstop suspensions,” C’s father said. “It was reinforcing the behavior — he wanted to get out of class, like ‘I get to go home with dad, yay!’”

Along the way, C’s parents say their son had been physically restrained multiple times — a common practice around the country — resulting in bruises and scratches on his body, including one “red scratch” across his eyeball.

For two of those five suspension days, C was sent to the district’s Alternate External Suspension Program at the Pine Ridge Education Center, a school that largely houses children who are in trouble with the law, for violations ranging from petty theft to drug dealing, according to Tracy Clark, a district spokesperson. Clark said 101 students currently attend Pine Ridge, many for violations that would have otherwise thrown them into the criminal justice system.

According to the aforementioned judge’s order, C was given Legos to play with during his time at Pine Ridge, and was not given educational material to work on.

A short time later, C’s parents asked the district to complete a Functional Behavioral Assessment, a process by which schools and parents address a student’s problem behaviors, and develop a plan to fix them.

According to court filings, the Behavioral Assessment took, according to a judge who later ruled on aspects of C’s case, an “inexplicable” six months to complete. C’s parents claimed the school district also attempted to change their son’s behavioral classification from “Autism Spectrum Disorder” to “Emotional and Behavioral Disorder” without their consent. The parents also claimed C had been transferred from one school, Nova Eisenhower Elementary, to another, Stephen Foster Elementary, but only found out after the parents tried to drop their son off at Nova Eisenhower.

“My wife was in the car loop to drop him off, and the assistant principal comes running out after her, yelling, that our son has been un-enrolled,” C’s father said. “She said we had to go enroll him at this other school, Stephen Foster.”

A rash of meetings also occurred, and C’s parents tried, in vain, to schedule proper sit-downs with a number of district representatives. C’s parents eventually filed a Due Process complaint with the state, claiming that they had been shut out of the district’s decision-making process.

In the meantime, C had been suspended at least 39 days from school.

On September 17, 2015, a state judge ruled that the district had both violated the parents’ rights, and had also needlessly suspended C. The judge ordered the District to schedule proper meetings to develop a new IEP, and expunge 29 of C’s suspension days.

In that case, the district claimed the family had been “given ample opportunity to discuss their concerns” with the district. The judge rejected this claim outright.

In mid-December, nine days before winter break, a new set of plans was finalized, which, the parents say, dictated that C would not be suspended from school for acting out.

“On Day 3 of the new plan — which we spent three months writing — we found out the school wasn’t compliant, and that the student had been suspended,” the parents’ lawyer, Stephanie Langer, told New Times.

C’s father said that, on December 16, a school official called him, and said C had insulted a staff member.

C’s father claims he eventually found out his son had, at one point, been suspended in-school, inside a trailer, and was allegedly deprived of food until he stopped “acting out” and insulting staff members. He also said his son had been denied the ability to use the bathroom, and when he picked his son up from that suspension, he “came out sobbing,” and tried to crawl under his father’s shirt to hide.

C’s parents say that, with a proper plan in place, C began to calm down and his behavior began to improve. But on February 5, the parents claim they were notified that their son was being sent to Pine Ridge, permanently, and that the change was mandatory.

Earlier this week, the family filed yet another due process complaint with the state, as well as a motion in federal court. The federal filing aimed to block C’s transfer to Pine Ridge.

Clark, the schools' spokesperson, said the district would not comment on open litigation. Clark did say, however, that when students are "referred" to Pine Ridge, "the parents are involved."

C's father said he "feels awful for all the sleep we’ve lost, the heartache, the time we can't get back at our jobs. We just want our kid to be in a supportive environment. A lot of people don’t know this, but you don’t make any money when you file due process claims. We got our legal bills paid the first time, sure, but otherwise, all you get is a meeting. You just go back to square one.”
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli