PORTLAND — Cindy Gaspard knew something was different about her son, Dylan, when he was 6 months old.
As an infant, he would line up toys in a row and throw a fit if the order was disrupted. He didn't like to be held. He couldn't speak until he was 3.
Dylan was diagnosed at age 7 with autism, a brain disorder that affects communication and social interaction. For Gaspard, the finding explained years of communication problems and outbursts, and helped her learn how to deal with many of his behaviors and to fight for services for her son.
She is fighting for him again.
Dylan, a sixth-grader enrolled in a special-needs program in Sumner County schools, was recently handcuffed, arrested and put in juvenile detention after an outburst in school. He was charged with two counts of assault for biting and scratching teachers.
"I disagree with court or jail as a placement for a mentally challenged child, when what he clearly needs is psychiatric treatment," Gaspard said of her 12-year-old son. "For Dylan, sitting in jail meant nothing to him. Treatment and assistance at a hospital will help him attain the skills he needs."
The case reflects an ongoing debate in Tennessee: How should school officials handle and defuse behavioral outbursts of developmentally disabled students at school?
Federal law prevents school officials from discussing students' cases, said district spokesman Jeremy Johnson.
But he said school district policy is that police will be called for children under certain circumstances, including when the child leaves school grounds, when the child's behavior cannot be controlled by teachers, and when a crime is committed.
"When a child is admitted to the therapeutic intervention program, parents are notified that we could have to call police," Johnson said.
Dylan, who has been in the hospital for a psychological evaluation since the episode on March 9, is not the first child with developmental disabilities to be arrested.
"Statewide, we have had several cases of children with disabilities being arrested and being taken to Juvenile Court for behaviors in school," said Sherry Wilds, staff attorney for the Tennessee Disability Law and Advocacy Center. "It's the answer a lot of systems have."
Seclusion Boxes Gone
Gaspard spoke out for her son in 2007 about seclusion boxes — small, dark rooms made of plywood where special-needs children were put to control behavior in Sumner County schools. She found out Dylan was put in one and helped bring their existence to public attention. The district has since removed the boxes.
A state law went into effect in January that is designed to prevent students from being subjected to unreasonable, unsafe or unwarranted discipline by prohibiting methods that include sitting on students as a restraint or putting them in a locked room. The Tennessee Board of Education will hold a public hearing April 30 on the rules for the restraint and isolation statute. April is also Autism Awareness Month.
Gaspard said Dylan had just been enrolled in the program at R.T. Fisher Alternative School in Gallatin a week before his arrest. He was placed there to better serve his educational needs.
But new situations and changes to routine can trigger his explosions, and school officials were aware of that because it is in his education plan. Methods that work best for him are taking him out of the situation or turning his attention to another activity, his mother said.
Boy Had Asthma Attack
Gaspard said after her son was arrested she learned that Dylan was in the gym running laps, and he had an asthma attack. He was allowed to stop to use his inhaler. When the teacher tried to get him to start running again, Dylan got frustrated and ran out of the school, saying he was going to "get hit by a car."
She said teachers were able to get him back in the building, but when they were restraining him, he acted out further.
Police said Dylan bit one teacher and kicked and scratched two others.
"If the child is so out of control that the teachers can no longer handle him, we are going to have to respond," said Lt. Kate Novitsky, spokeswoman for the Gallatin Police Department. "If the child is biting, scratching and kicking, the child is going to have to be taken into custody."
Gaspard said restraining Dylan can backfire because, like many children with autism, he doesn't want to be touched. He banged his head against the table and had a bruise on his head the size of a golf ball.
Dylan was handcuffed, put in the police car and taken to juvenile detention. Police were not told he had autism.
Johnson, the Sumner County schools spokesman, said the district is not allowed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to release that information to police, "even in an emergency."
Wilds, the Tennessee Disability Law and Advocacy Center attorney, disputes that contention, saying laws don't typically apply in an emergency.
"If you are getting ready to throw a child in the back of a car and take them away, you would want to know please handle this child carefully, they can't communicate that well," she said.
Arrest Stuns Advocates
Wilds said public and private lawyers are not always trained to handle these cases to fight for the child in courts. A behavioral analysis should be done on many of these children before police or court become involved.
"That way you can have a behavior intervention program in place when something happens," she said.
Holly Lu Conant Rees, chairman of the Disability Coalition on Education, said she has a lot of questions about the episode, including what plans were in place to help Dylan before the situation escalated. She does not believe arresting him was the answer.
"I believe it's unconscionable to arrest a 12-year-old child for behaviors that were clearly manifestations of the child's disability," said Conant Rees, who advocates for children of disabilities.
As for Gaspard, she is trying to figure out what the next step for Dylan will be and how to help him.
"Dylan is a very loving, funny child, and people are drawn to him and his big smile," Gaspard said. "He is the light of my life, and it's hard when you feel you are always butting heads with someone to get your child help."