Two families are fighting to get their 12-year-old sons out of the Weymouth public schools. One family says their autistic son is being bullied; the other parents say they worry that their mentally ill child will hurt others.
The school administration has rejected both requests to leave the district for more specialized schools, saying they can handle the situations at the Abigail Adams Middle School.
“I can’t comment [on these specific cases], but we, of course, are committed to ensuring the safety of every student,” said Superintendent Kenneth Salim. “Particularly with students with disabilities, we take very seriously our legal obligation to provide a safe and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.
“In every situation, we strive to work collaboratively with families to meet their [children’s] educational needs,” Salim said.
The parents, however, say their children’s needs are being ignored.
Lori Kettell said her son has been tutored at home since early November, when he ran there after fellow students threatened and verbally abused him in the school lunchroom. It was the latest in a series of bullying incidents, she said, and she wants him to go to a school that specializes in children with her son’s form of autism, Asperger’s syndrome, where he can have friends and feel safe.
“He walked out the front door of the school because he didn’t feel there was anyone there he could trust,” she said. “He walked out without anyone noticing. How do you bring your child back?”
“They’re saying have faith in the system, but we’ve been going through this since kindergarten,” said her husband, Scott Kettell. “How much can a kid take?”
Sethany Griffin’s son is still at Abigail Adams, in a small, separate special-education classroom. But she said she worries about his and other children’s safety if he stays there. He has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals twice this school year after violent episodes, she said.
“He has not shown any aggression at school; he keeps it together until he gets home,” Griffin said. “But all of the professionals [in his life] say it’s only a matter of time before those lines gray and he will hurt someone at school.”
Griffin was so concerned that she sent a letter earlier in February to various local and state officials “with the understanding that many of you will be unable to respond due to your positions.”
But “when something happens, and my child hurts himself, a peer, a teacher, or a family member, I just want to ensure that people were aware of the risk ahead of time,” she said.
Her letter included an excerpt from another written to school officials by Margaret Chapman in Hingham, her son’s nurse and psycho-pharmacologist, saying she was “astonished and alarmed” that the boy wasn’t being sent to a “therapeutic school” that could help him since he “poses a significant threat to himself, his peers and staff.”
Salim said that while he couldn’t comment on a specific case, “in general terms, with any outside evaluation, we take that into consideration. But the school district does its own evaluation, as well.” In their response to Griffin, school officials said they saw no evidence that her son was aggressive or violent and described him as “compliant, respectful, engaged and . . . well liked by his peers.”
Griffin said she believed the school district’s decision, which she has appealed, is based on financial considerations.
The cost of an outside day program for children with severe mental health issues is high. For example, the public Pilgrim Collaborative in Pembroke charges $29,000 a year, and annual tuition is $70,000 at the Harvard University-affiliated Manville School in Boston. Prices for residential programs are even higher.
However, Salim said, decisions about special education “are based on the educational needs of children and our legal obligation to provide a safe and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.” In the jargon of special education, the “least restrictive environment” is a student’s local school.
Weymouth is spending about $6.4 million of its $56.8 million school budget on tuition for 103 students in programs outside the Weymouth public schools, Salim said. The total special education budget is about $14.1 million, he said.
The number of students in outside placements has been about 95 to 100 students over the past five years, he said. There are close to 7,000 students in the school district, and about 1,270 receive special education services, close to the state average of 17 percent of students, he said.
Jim Prince, director of the Manville School in Boston, said Weymouth has sent students to his program and similar ones. “In the sense of providing services and looking to be helpful, my understanding is they have a solid reputation,” he said.
“I always feel for parents who are in this type of situation,” Prince said. “I also know and understand that the services are expensive and not enough resources are provided to the local school districts. There is a great unfunded federal mandate for [special education] services.”
While the two families are dealing separately with the Weymouth school system, their cases are linked in a way. Griffin said her son became very upset when he learned about the bullying incident and wanted to start an anti-bullying club that would protect students.
If her son, who weighs more than 200 pounds, “witnesses an act of bullying or is bullied himself, we really are afraid that he’ll go into vigilante mode and he is going to hurt somebody,” Griffin said. “He’s not a bad kid; he has a huge heart. If, after the fact, he learned he was responsible for hurting another child, it would crush him.
“We didn’t want all this personal information [out] in such a public forum,” she added, “but if it can help him get where he needs to be, so be it.”
Appeals of local special education placement decisions go to the state Bureau of Special Education Appeals.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.