Jacques: When your child isn’t safe at school

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Parents always want to protect their children from harm. For parents of kids with special needs, their concerns are heightened. School is supposed to be a safe place for students, including those with disabilities. But when it’s not, it is a betrayal.

A family in Novi feels very betrayed by the school their autistic son attended. They shared their story this month in the Autism Alliance of Michigan’s newsletter. April is Autism Awareness Month. When their son told them a classmate — also with a disability — had inappropriately touched and sexually harassed him for months, they were shocked and outraged.

“February 27, 2014. The day is seared into my mind,” the mom writes. “It is the day my husband and I learned that our autistic, seventh-grade son, Joe, had been sexually abused by an emotionally impaired student at Novi Middle School for the past six months. Our sweet, innocent boy.”

The students were together in the same special education class. The parents felt their autistic son had been taken advantage of by this other student, who has a long record of abusive and disruptive behavior at school — starting in preschool. Autism causes “significant social, communication and behavioral changes,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So the autistic student didn’t understand that the touching was wrong or how to handle it.

Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance, calls the situation a “heartbreaker.” “It’s never either kid’s fault,” Allen says. “It’s a school that didn’t do what it’s supposed to do.”

She says this case has brought the need for additional legislation to the forefront. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has a daughter with autism, has advocated for students with disabilities. Calley helped pass legislation last year to end seclusion and restraint in schools and he’s interested in pursuing other reforms, Allen says.

In this case, it’s the fact this abuse went unreported by teachers and administrators that led the parents to file a lawsuit in federal court against the Novi Community School District, claiming the district violated several federal laws aimed at protecting individuals from abuse. Joe Viviano of Viviano Law is representing the family and he thinks the evidence is strong against district officials.

“They have said in a hundred ways that this child doesn’t matter,” Viviano says. “I think he matters a lot.”

The case has been ongoing since 2014, but it’s scheduled for trial in August. In a statement, Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews said: “It is important to remember that our first and foremost priority is the safety and consideration of all of our students and therefore we do not want to jeopardize their right to privacy under the Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act. Because this is an ongoing case, we cannot speak out with regards to these allegations.”

The district claims in court documents that the allegations against it are “unfounded” and that the two boys were in a “consensual relationship.” That’s a hard premise to defend, however, since both children had disabilities and were in middle school.

Karen Wang of Novi understands what this family is going through. She has a child with autism at Northville Public Schools. Often, parents aren’t allowed to know the background of other students in a special ed class.

“Life as a special education parent is extremely isolating,” Wang says.

For the 18,000 autistic students attending Michigan schools, they deserve special care from the adults charged with their education.

“These are the people who are supposed to protect our children, especially the most vulnerable ones,” Viviano says. “What happened is not OK. It has to be dealt with and fixed so it never happens again.”