School Bans Aspie Boy from School Playground

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The Boston Globe reports

Nine-year-old Jan Rankowski became suspicious when a teacher’s aide began following him around with a clipboard at this small town’s only public playground.

The aide talked to Jan’s playmates and took notes on his behavior, said the home-schooled boy, who has autism.

Then, Jan’s suspicion turned to anger when Falmouth school officials barred him last fall from using the playground during the day. They said he undermined adults, used unacceptable language, and played aggressively with other children, including pushing a first-grader too hard on a swing.

Jan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a highly functional form of autism, insists he did nothing wrong, and so do his parents, who will attend a court hearing in August to try to get the boy back on the playground in the town south of Portland.

“I should be treated the same way as a normal person is,” Jan said. His parents, Charles A. Rankowski and Gayle Fitzpatrick, say the Falmouth school district discriminated against Jan and violated state laws by refusing him access to a public playground, according to a lawsuit filed in Cumberland Superior Court.

School officials disagree, saying the insubordinate fourth-grader repeatedly challenged the staff’s control at the playground and presented “emotional safety” risks to the other children.

“The notion of us discriminating against Jan is entirely unfounded,” said Barbara Powers, principal of Falmouth’s Plummer-Motz elementary school. “He was not suspended because he was autistic.”

Powers said administrators have the ultimate authority over the playground during school hours.

According to doctors’ assessment of his behavior last August, Jan, then age 8, had the social skills of a 4-year-old, and when frustrated he could become explosive or flee.

Autism can manifest itself in different ways. Jan gives little eye contact and won’t make small talk. He gets upset at loud, sudden noises and doesn’t recognize people by their faces, but rather by their movements and voices.

Jan’s parents wanted him to be able to play at the playground so he could interact with his peers during recess.

As a home-schooled child, he doesn’t get to interact much with other children. Jan, who has a brown belt in karate, likes to play tag with other children and run through the playground’s maze.

Fitzpatrick, who works as an information specialist at the Autism Society of Maine, took her son out of the district two years ago because of concerns that the school was failing to address his needs.

The family has since hired a team of specialists to work daily with Jan.

Some advocates for people with autism say Jan’s case highlights a resistance to accepting “invisible” neurological disabilities, especially in small, homogenous communities such as Falmouth. The Falmouth school system’s student body of about 2,200 is 96 percent white and there are 10 autistic children.

“It doesn’t make sense to take someone who already has challenges with social interactions and further isolate them by prohibiting them from playing in the playground with other children,” said Stephen Shore, president of the board of the Asperger’s Association of New England.

The case also raises the legal question of whether school officials can deny a home-schooled student access to a public playground.

Falmouth’s policy allows home-schooled students to use school services as long as the access does not disrupt regular school activities or cost extra. The school principal has to approve the access.

Fitzpatrick said Jan had used the playground for a year without any problems, but she became concerned last fall after other students called her son names, such as “crazy.” Fitzpatrick said she or a home-school aide was always watching him at the playground, but neither initially suspected he was being observed by the school.

After the complaints, Powers decided to place an additional public-school aide on the playground to help monitor the school-yard disputes. The aide also was instructed to take notes on the boy’s behavior, although his mother was not informed about the observations.

In an interview last week, Powers said the increased supervision of Jan’s behavior revealed problems with aggressive play, including throwing rocks, and defiance of authority.

The teacher’s aide noted that the autistic boy jumped off a bench the wrong way, walked away from a game, refused to greet an aide, cursed at the staff, and reported that someone was spying on him, according to court records.

Six weeks later, Powers said, the situation came to a head when the boy defied authority on several occasions. She declined to give details.

With Superintendent Timothy McCormack’s approval, the principal suspended Jan, then 9, from using the playground until the school could evaluate his behavior and set expectations for his behavior in the school yard.

“Our job is to protect Jan and the other children,” McCormack said.

After the suspension, Fitzpatrick said, she was outraged to learn that the school had taken “snooping notes” without her approval. Fitzpatrick also said she could not understand why the school was punishing her son for behaviors that were part of his disability and documented in his recent assessment. The parents refused to allow the school to evaluate Jan, because they said it would be used to further discriminate against him.

School officials said they are sad the dispute spilled into the courts and believe it could have been resolved months ago.

The family’s lawsuit includes school records of other students’ misbehavior at the playground, including an incident in which a student brought a knife to recess and another kicked a peer. Both lost recess privileges for three days.

Sitting at a wooden picnic table outside their home, Jan’s parents said they blame the school for leaving their son without daily playmates for the last seven months.

He is increasingly isolated, holing up with his computers, gaining weight, and struggling with social skills.

“I just want my kid to play on the playground,” said Charles Rankowski. “I want him to do what anyone else is allowed to do. Is that so much to ask?”

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