It seems that along with their duty to make referrals to Child Services to insure a child’s safety, school districts, in a misuse of power, are weaponizing threats of referrals to Child Services in order to force parents to agree to programs and placements that they don’t feel are in the best interest of their children. This practice was the topic of an investigative report released by Hechinger & HuffPost (11/18/18) and an article in FEE, Foundation for Economics and Education (12/13/18).

Both led me to reflect on an incident in our town, approximately two years ago, while I was serving as an advocate for a parent and child. The parent, trying to work cooperatively with the school district in order to find an appropriate placement for his child, agreed to visit an area cooperative school that, although known to focus on students’ emotional and behavioral issues, now claimed to have a program designed with an understanding of the needs of high functioning students on the autism spectrum. The parent, having visited the proposed area cooperative school, was inclined to enroll his child but first arranged to tour the school with the child in order to support the transition.

On the day of the visit the child was immediately taken by a staff member to the proposed classroom, seemingly to meet the teacher and students. The parent waited in the office expecting the child to be brought back soon to begin the tour. After some time, the staff member returned and told the parent that said child was being detained in what was called an ‘alternate learning area’ but was a locked seclusion room with a behavior technician. Upon hearing this, the parent demanded that the child be brought to him and they immediately left the school.

It turned out that the child, who has separation anxiety, had asked the classroom teacher when he would see his father and was told in a little while. Not understanding time, he became somewhat anxious and was taken into seclusion where he was told by the behavior technician that he couldn’t leave to see his father until he stopped talking, a task quite difficult for a highly verbal and anxious autistic child. The child later told his parent he thought he was arrested and worried he had brought shame on the family.

On the following day, when the parent informed our town’s Pupil Personnel Director (Spec.Ed) he didn’t feel he could go forward with the area cooperative placement, he was told that a referral to Child Services would be made if the child did not report to the cooperative school, adding that the team felt this was a correct placement. At a final meeting, when asked about the therapeutic atmosphere the school claimed to have, the administrator at the area school responded, “punishment can be therapeutic.” Our town’s district director then added and documented that she had visited said room and thought the approach was acceptable and reiterated the threat of a Child Service referral if the child did not report to the school. The parent, having been advised by an attorney and the child’s therapist, was prepared with the required letter to withdraw the child from our town’s school system in order to protect him.

Yes, school districts do weaponize Child Service threats. However, in this case, it was recently revealed that soon after this incident, the area cooperative school was ordered by the State of Connecticut to cease the use of its punitive approaches. Although not made public, this information was verified by area cooperative staff. It seems the state comes in and orders changes, working under the radar and protecting schools while leaving parents at the mercy of the district’s threats. One wonders how many parents, many with no options or resources, are forced to agree to situations not in the best interest of their child and often not safe.

One wonders, who is protected by the state, children or school districts?

Janet Hutchins lives in Hamden.

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