Saturday, September 22 , 2018, 8:45 pm | Fair 61º

 
 
 
 

Clash Between Student, Teacher’s Aide Draws State’s Rebuke

Santa Barbara and county districts have been found "out of compliance" for their handling of a confrontation in which a student was injured.

California education officials have found the Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara County school districts out of compliance with several state and federal education laws for the way they handled an incident in which a 14-year-old student was injured after a physical confrontation with a teacher’s aide at a downtown school serving students with behavior issues.

The student, who has learning disabilities, was sent to El Puente Community School, 430 E. Gutierrez St., from a local junior high school in the summer of 2007 to catch up on credits, and did not have behavior problems, according to Joan Esposito, an advocate for students with learning disabilities.

On Oct. 17, 2007, the El Puente aide and the student got into a verbal confrontation when the student joined others in rolling around in chairs in the classroom, disrupting the class, according to a report from the Santa Barbara Police Department. Descriptions of what happened next vary, but by all accounts the aide approached the student, and the altercation became physical after the student stood up.

By the aide’s telling, he grabbed the student by the hands and they both fell to the ground, causing the student to fall head-first with his arms behind his back, hitting his head on the ground, the report says. According to the student, the aide grabbed his arms and threw him to the ground. In any event, the injury left a mark the size of a 50-cent piece on the student’s forehead, according to the police report. His mother told Noozhawk the incident also left her son with two black eyes.

The report says police became involved after the student’s mother took the boy to the emergency room the same day. There, according to the police report, the nursing staff at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital told the mother she should contact the police because the injury seemed evidence of an assault.

The police concluded that the case did not appear to rise to the level of a criminal assault. Still, the aide was removed from his position, and has since left California.

The incident occurred about a year ago, but was first aired in public last week when Esposito, the founder of the 17-year-old Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center and a frequent critic of the city K-12 and county public school systems, brought it up to the Santa Barbara school board, which presides over the K-12 district.

“I don’t like coming here, but every now and again a child walks through my door and I have no choice but to come in front of you,” Esposito said. “You know what? This was just another Hispanic student whose parents couldn’t afford to hire an attorney.”

In the months after the incident, the boy rarely attended school, according to the state report. For the past three weeks, he has been in a program in which his schooling consists of a public school teacher meeting with him at his house or a public place for an hour a day, Esposito said.

El Puente is run by the county Education Office, not the K-12 Santa Barbara School District, which is primarily in charge of the traditional schools. But most of El Puente’s students come from the K-12 district, usually through expulsion.

Not all El Puente students have severe behavior issues. County school officials say that although the majority of students at El Puente have been expelled from traditional schools for infractions such as brandishing a weapon, selling drugs or fighting, about a quarter of the school’s 150 students are there with parental consent to catch up in school. County officials say they are constrained by law from talking about individual students, but Esposito said the student fell into the latter category.

In June, the student’s mother filed a complaint with the state Department of Education charging that neither the K-12 district nor the county district handled the incident appropriately.

In all, according to a state report dated July 31, the K-12 and county school districts were found “out of compliance” by the state on 10 of the 14 complaints filed by the parent. However, county Education Office officials appealed, and in mid-September were able to get two charges dropped, bringing down the total compliance violations to eight, four for each of the county Education Office and the city K-12 school district.

Some of the violations were fairly technical. For instance, the state found that the county district failed to file a Behavioral Emergency Report to the county Special Education Local Plan Area, or SELPA, after the incident. Such reports are supposed to be filed whenever an emergency hold is placed on a student.

Other violations were less technical. For instance, days after the incident, the student was sent back to a traditional high school. Once he enrolled, he should have had access to counseling services, according to the state education code. But from late October to the end of the 2007-08 school year, the boy rarely came to school — missing 108 of the next 140 days — and so did not receive counseling, according to the report. On this measure, the state found the K-12 district, but not the county, out of compliance.

Brian Sarvis, superintendent of the K-12 district, said Tuesday that he hadn’t heard the details of this case.

“If we’re out of compliance on anything, we’ll fix it,” he said. “We have to embrace our problems as well as the things we are doing well.”

County Education Office officials say they have since corrected all of the county’s violations. The reparations included sending a memo to the staff at El Puente informing them of the circumstances in which a Behavior Emergency Report is to be written. The county office also held a staff training session on Sept. 30 on how and when to properly administer a hold on students who pose a threat.

County Education Office Assistant Superintendent Florene Bednersh said the county already had been providing this training, but because of the incident, the state required the county to conduct a special training session.

The errant aide, she said, also had completed the mandatory 12 hours of training, but on the day of the incident neglected to adhere to what was taught.

“He used (the hold technique) when it wasn’t an appropriate time to use it,” Bednersh said. “The student was only mouthing off, he wasn’t even using aggression. You would never use a hold in that circumstance.”

Esposito, who is handling the boy’s case, maintains that the student should not have been sent to El Puente in the first place. This, she said, is because his behavior problems were mild, and had more to do with his learning disabilities.

“The boy has dyslexia and several other learning disabilities,” she told the school board. “Legally, he should have been sent to a private tutor.”

County school officials counter that they always receive parent consent before sending students to El Puente to catch up on credits. (Parent consent is not required for expelled students.)

“A lot of people think well of El Puente,” said Wendy Shelton, communications director with the county Education Office. “They think it is a safer, better environment for their children at this point in their child’s life.”

The parent’s complaint, meanwhile, did not address the matter of whether the boy should have been sent to El Puente.

A few of the complaints didn’t stick. Among them was a charge that the county Education Office should have provided the parents with a video from a surveillance camera that recorded the event. According to the state report, the county office afforded the parents “reasonable access” to review the video. Also, the K-12 district promptly fulfilled the parents’ request for the student’s records within five business days, the report said.

All told, after the county’s appeal, the K-12 district and the county were each found “out of compliance” on four charges.

According to the state, the county failed to:

» Prevent behavior interventions that may cause pain.

» Write a complete Behavioral Emergency Report after the incident.

» Ensure that a general education teacher was present during a mandatory meeting after the incident that included parents and staff. (Such meetings must take place on a regular basis for special education students. In special ed jargon, the participants are commonly referred to as an Individualized Education Program team.)

» Demonstrate that a Functional Analysis Assessment had been initiated or completed by behavior intervention case manager for the purpose of “targeting and eliminating the maladaptive behavior.”

The K-12 district failed to:

» Demonstrate the student had access to counseling services during November and December at the high school.

» Assess in all areas related to the suspected disability.

» Adhere to timelines for mental health referral and assessment.

» Ensure that the IEP team considered strategies and supports to address the behavior of a child that impedes his or her learning or that of others.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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