Pastor Questions School Division on Discipline of Special Education Student

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By Stefanie Jackson – A concerned citizen advised the Accomack school board Tuesday night to reconsider how the school division treats its special needs students, after one such student was given a 45-day suspension.

“I am standing here tonight in a bit of frustration with the processes of our administration,” said the Rev. Willie Justis, of Accomac.

Justis was worried that a 10-year-old special-needs student had been “traumatized” at a recent discipline hearing.

He referred to it as a “manifestation hearing,” so called because it is held to determine whether or not a student’s disability manifested, or caused, a particular behavior that resulted in disciplinary action.

“They forced the mom to bring her child” to the hearing and proceeded to “demonize” the girl as the team presented its case, said Justis, who attended the hearing.

According to U.S. law – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – a hearing is required when a special education student faces a suspension of more than 10 days.

The process must be conducted by the student’s Individualized Education Plan team.

The mother was told she would be allowed to respond to the case against her child, but her daughter suffered a “meltdown” during the hearing, and the mother “had to leave the room, never having the opportunity to defend her child’s cause,” Justis said.

“We know that in a legal courtroom, they don’t allow the children to be retraumatized by the events that happened,” he continued.

But Accomack school division held a “kangaroo court” that carried out a “horrendous attack to incite a response from the child,” Justis asserted.

In his opinion, Accomack public school officials “wanted to discriminate against the child’s disability because they are not prepared to properly address her diagnosis.”

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of The Kings Daughters, in Norfolk, Va., diagnosed the girl with autism and a behavior disorder called ODD or oppositional defiant disorder, which school officials have ignored, Justis said.

He didn’t hear a psychologist or behavioral specialist present an opinion at the hearing, he added.

“I believe that this 45-day suspension was pushed by the superintendent (Chris Holland) as if there was a point to be made, regardless of who gets hurt,” Justis said.

He believed the child’s emotional outbreak was caused by school officials at the hearing, which was “very disturbing, to say the least.”

An appeal of their decision can be made through the Accomack County court system.

“I hope that in the future there will be more empathy expressed when dealing with our students, even the ones who have done bad things,” Justis said.

He has heard complaints from other parents of special needs students. Accomack schools’ special education department has a “major problem” that must be addressed, Justis said.

Another citizen had less confrontational comments to make to the school board regarding special education.

Eileen Holcomb, of Chincoteague, is the parent of a special education student and a member of Accomack County’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC).

Committee members want to use the Accomack County Public Schools (ACPS) robo-call system to get the word out to parents about meetings.

For five years, SEAC has sent flyers home with students, posted notices on the ACPS website, and advertised in newspapers and on the radio, with few results.

Director of Special Education Jennifer Annis relayed the committee’s request, “but administration informed her that robo-calls cannot be used for this purpose,” Holcomb said.

“This was disappointing. As parents, we have received robo-calls regarding fundraisers, sporting events, and various meetings.”

The committee is now seeking permission to contact principals individually to make robo-call announcements about SEAC meetings on a school-by-school basis.

The next SEAC meeting is Tuesday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., in the Arcadia Middle School library.