PASS CHRISTIAN -- The state Department of Education will conduct an on-site investigation of Pass Christian schools after a parent complained about the treatment of her special-needs child.
Heather Rhodes alleges her son, Cade, was improperly restrained, injured and not provided an appropriate education as required by federal law. She also accused the district of trying to stymie her efforts to rectify the situation.
State officials will investigate to allegations during their two-day visit to Pass Christian: whether a person without proper knowledge and special expertise was invited to be part of the team that determined Cade's special accommodations and whether the district provided Cade with the "least restrictive learning environment" possible.
Education Department officials could not comment specifically on this investigation but said the scope of the results of such investigations varies.
"In general, there is a wide variance between cases," said Gretchen Cagle, the state director of special education. "At times, we find situations where the resolution applies to only one student. Other times we may find an issue that requires a policy revision that would impact the entire district. It is completely dependent upon the facts of the case."
Problems began early
Rhodes said the problems began soon after she enrolled Cade, now a third-grader, at DeLisle Elementary in fall 2014.
Rhodes adopted Cade and his twin sister at 9 days old after they'd been left in a hospital following 2005's Hurricane Katrina, she said. The pair had been born to a mother addicted to cocaine and both suffer some developmental disabilities.
Cade is autistic and has been diagnosed with a seizure disorder. He is verbal and can generally communicate with others.
At DeLisle, he was immediately placed into a classroom for cognitively delayed children of various levels of development. That in itself concerned Rhodes -- she said she didn't think the environment of the class was conducive to learning.
"I feel like we're way past putting all the special kids in one room, isolated," she said. "There's no way to teach various disabilities, even with two assistants in the classroom. You're talking students from toddler-level development to a 10-year-old autistic verbal child."
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that "to a maximum extent possible," students with disabilities "are educated with children who are not disabled." Disabled children should be taught separately, the law says, only when "education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily."
Rhodes doesn't deny Cade needs extra help and may need to be in that classroom part of the day. But she said he could be integrated into the regular classroom for a portion of his classes.
Still, when Cade enrolled in the school he was doing well in class and at home, Rhodes said.
In February 2015, though, Rhodes got a call about him exhibiting bizarre behavior. When she arrived she found her son traumatized and in a small "safe room," she said.
That incident started a downward spiral.
"He never could get comfortable in that environment again," she said.
At the end of March, she found out Cade had been physically restrained by a behavioral specialist.
On Sept. 15, Rhodes got a dozen phone calls while at work. Cade had been suspended for a day for hitting a teacher, she was told.
She later learned Cade's ankle had been broken though she said she couldn't get an adequate explanation of what happened.
Rhodes said she doesn't condone Cade throwing things or being physical. But she also said he displayed those behaviors only in school -- a place where he was scared.
After the Sept. 15 incident, she kept him out of school for four months, hiring baby-sitters and tutors while she worked full-time and cared for him and his sister.
Rhodes said she and district officials tried a number of times to reach a settlement but each attempt failed. Finally, on March 1, she filed the complaint with the state.
Change of school
Cade is now at Pass Christian Elementary, in a classroom for students with behavioral issues. He's doing better there, though Rhodes would still like to see him integrated more into the mainstream classes.
The way she sees it, he's not in his "least-restrictive learning environment."
"He's doing fantastic in his new placement. He went back to being the kid he was, making 90s and 99s on his behavioral goals," Rhodes said. "That's who my kid is. He's not the child they created him to be."
In the past year, among 66,793 students with disabilities statewide, the Education Department has received 12 complaints regarding placement or the least-restrictive learning environment. There was one complaint regarding "determination of knowledge and special expertise by an individual invited to be a member of the IEP team."
Rhodes' was the only complaint filed against Pass Christian schools.
Four of those complaints resulted in on-site investigations, generally conducted when the necessary information cannot be gathered through other means, Cagle said.
Biloxi schools were also a target of a similar investigation into the seclusion and restraint of disabled students after Disability Rights Mississippi filed a complaint against Gorenflo Elementary.
Student-privacy laws prevented Biloxi officials from releasing the results of that complaint but the district said it would create a team of administrators, teachers and consultants to determine the best way to implement the Education Department's recommendations.
Rhodes has also been involved in the recent process to create a statewide policy for seclusion and restraint of students. Cade has had problems in other schools and some of those district officials have disputed Rhodes' version of events in those cases.
No law on the books
Mississippi is one of five states without a policy or law to govern such practices. The state Education Department released a revised policy draft several weeks ago, on which residents can comment.
Among other regulations of when and how seclusion and restraint can be used, the policy would require schools to track its use -- something not currently demanded of them.
Pass schools Superintendent Beth John said she could not comment specifically on the coming investigation. But she said her teachers are devoted to their students.
"After the storm, we came together and regrouped and decided what beliefs would drive the district. And one of those is that all students have an equal opportunity to learn, the opportunity to feel accepted, safe and valued and we really hold dear to that," she said.