Friday, May 22, 2009

UT: Parents want Utah school held accountable for kids' safety

Safety » Moms say school didn't protect their special needs kids.

By Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake Tribune

Updated: 05/03/2009 09:48:28 AM MDT

A child last year nearly suffocated Tucker Doak, an 8-year-old special needs student, according to a classroom aide.

The same child threatened to kill 9-year-old Andrew Veldhuizen, also a special needs student, and screamed profanities at him, the aide said.

In both cases, Plain City Elementary didn't notify the boys' parents, nor did the staff call police or the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). They didn't call authorities when the same child touched Andrew's clothed genitals, causing him to wet himself.

Tucker's and Andrew's parents are outraged the school told them nothing, but state laws that dictate what parents must be told about injuries at school are open to interpretation.

The parents also are disappointed school officials didn't call police or DCFS even though Utah law requires anyone who believes a child has been abused or neglected to notify authorities.

Weber School District spokesman Nate Taggart called some of the stories "exaggerated," but said he could not otherwise comment for privacy reasons. He said the district tries to communicate with parents as much as possible.

Linda Carver, Weber assistant superintendent, said schools must weigh what's best for children when deciding whether to call authorities.

"Even though we want it reported and want it reported to parents, we are the ones who have the insight on how to best deal and make sure it doesn't happen in the future," she said.

But parents Jamie Doak and Deborah Veldhuizen say the district didn't protect their children. They want officials held accountable so this doesn't happen to other students.

"This is something that shouldn't be kept under the rug," Veldhuizen said. "Parents aren't being notified."

In the dark

Veldhuizen and Doak didn't hear the full story about what happened to their sons until weeks after the incidents.

And much of what they did hear came from Holly Wilson, a classroom aide who was placed on paid leave in April about a month after telling them. Wilson believes she was let go for blowing the whistle.

Taggart said Wilson was not terminated for that reason. "It was felt that the team could not be effective with her there," he said.

Wilson said she gave the school a chance to tell the parents what happened. When no one did, she did it herself.

What she said shocked Veldhuizen and Doak.

Veldhuizen knew a child had touched her son's groin at school in March 2008 because the school sent home a note about it. School officials told her they had assigned an aide to the offending student, Veldhuizen said.

She didn't know the student continued to harass her son,screaming profanities at him and threatening to kill him, often while he was in the bathroom. It got to the point, Wilson said, where Andrew, then 8, was afraid to go to the bathroom by himself and began having accidents.

"This kid would get right in his face and be bright red, screaming at him," Wilson said. "Andrew would just sit there dumbfounded."

Wilson also shocked Doak with more information about Tucker, who cannot speak and is the size of a toddler.

Doak knew that in early February a child had tried to choke her son. She heard about it from her son's bus driver and immediately called the teacher. She didn't know that, about two weeks after that incident, the same student tried to suffocate Tucker, according to Wilson. Wilson said the student held tiny Tucker up in the air and put his hand over his nose and mouth.

"He was turning purple, and his eyes were beaded out," Wilson said.

Doak noticed physical and behavioral changes in her son at the time. Doak asked his aides and teacher if something was going on.

"I was bawling," Doak said. "Every single one of them knew what was going on and not one of them told me."

Carol Lear, a Utah State Office of Education attorney , said privacy laws make it tricky for schools to decide what to tell parents. "The school has to do whatever it has to do to keep those children safe," Lear said. "On the other hand, just because a kid acts out or is abusive, it doesn't destroy his rights to privacy either."

According to Utah law, the district technically may have done nothing wrong by not telling the parents. Schools are only required to tell parents about injuries to a child that require medical care outside of the school.

Doak and Veldhuizen find the law astonishing, especially because their children aren't able to tell their own stories.

"I'm not asking you to contact me if my child gets a hangnail," Doak said. "But suffocation and strangulation are different things."

Calling authorities

Carver, the assistant superintendent, said the district must weigh carefully whether to call outside authorities when children act out against others.

"It's not like we're trying to ignore the situation," she said. "But we work as a team to make that call -- what's best in that situation without bringing extra trauma or unnecessary developments to either the perpetrator or the child who's been perpetrated against."

Instead, Doak and Veldhuizen separately called the Weber County Sheriff's Office in March 2008 after they learned what had happened. The sheriff's office called DCFS, which investigated the incident involving the student touching Andrew inappropriately. DCFS supported the allegation, meaning most of the evidence suggested touching happened. A DCFS case worker recommended Andrew see a therapist.

The sheriff's office ultimately closed both cases and took no action against the child because of the child's age and mental capabilities, Detective Stephanie Tatton said.

DCFS director Duane Betournay said his agency works with schools to train them about what should be reported. Attempted strangulation, he said, should be reported. But inappropriate touching raises questions schools must first answer, such as: What was the intent of the touching? Was it the first time?

He said schools often err on the side of caution, both out of concern for the children and because they can face charges for failing to report abuse.

"Educators don't want to cry wolf when there's maybe nothing there, but at the same point in time they have some liability to report," Betournay said. "If they don't report, the consequences are potentially drastic not only for the person, but also the institution."

Problem students

Neither mother blames the offending child, who also has special needs, but they say the school should have done more to protect their sons.

At the time, the offending child was one of eight special needs children in the classroom, which was managed by four aides. The classroom lacked a licensed teacher for about six months during last school year, Taggart said, because of a statewide shortage of special education teachers.

"At times there were three of us, three aides trying to catch this one child, leaving one aide in the classroom with the rest of the kids," Wilson said. "I don't even know how any of the kids learned anything."

Taggart said there were enough aides but they weren't correctly handling the class. He said the same classroom has been successful this year because a new team of aides and a licensed teacher are now in charge.

He said he could not comment on whether the school took disciplinary action against the student last year. According to the law, schools may suspend special education students under some circumstances. But they can't simply move a special education student who is causing problems to another classroom without changing the child's individualized education program or trying a number of interventions, said Glenna Gallo, a special education coordinator with the state office.

"When you have a classroom for kids with severe disabilities, part of their disability, often, is some of those behaviors, those physically aggressive behaviors and verbally aggressive behaviors," said Ann Miller, the Weber district's special education director. "We try to teach students appropriate behaviors."

Lack of trust

Doak and Veldhuizen have filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, a notification with the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, and a notice of claim with the Weber district, but little has happened.

They took steps toward suing the district for monetary damages. But the state Division of Risk Management, which insures the district, denied the claim in October, saying the parents failed to follow the proper process.

Taggart said the parents first should have requested a hearing under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before going after the district with lawyers.

Doak and Veldhuizen said they didn't request a hearing because they didn't think the problem had anything to do with their children's educational plans. It had to do with their children's safety, they said.

They've given up on the lawsuit, which didn't seem to be going anywhere, and they moved their children to different schools.

But they still want to see the school held accountable.

"There needs to be a trust," Doak said. "If they're hiding stuff, there's obviously not that trust there."

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