PORTLAND, Ore. – Like many 16-year-olds, Franklin High sophomore Jerry Grimmer loves to pal around with his friends and favorite adults at school.

When his teacher, Stephanie Haynes, headed to a faculty meeting, leaving Jerry’s special education class in the hands of teacher’s aides, Grimmer piped in: “You want me to handle the class, Mrs. H?” She suggested he read aloud to the class, and he did.

A full school day is a welcome change for the Southeast Portland teen. For an entire school year, over the objections of Grimmer, his mother and his teacher, Portland Public Schools allowed Grimmer, who has autism, to attend only a half-day of school.

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That decision, which high-ranking Portland special education officials decline to explain, deprived the high school freshman of more than 500 hours of class – an apparent violation of state and federal education laws.

After a meltdown at school in October of his freshman year, “Jerry was the only one getting on a bus at 11:15 a.m. and going home, and it upset him,” said his mother, Tara Church. The arrangement continued through October 2015, when Grimmer was a sophomore.

“He loves being around people. He loves learning. He wanted to stay with his classmates,” Church said. “He felt that he was being punished and he was, essentially, being punished.”

State officials say Grimmer’s case was not that unusual. Oregon schools have occasionally, at times illegally, used disability-related misbehavior by students as a reason to curtail their school day. So state education officials have stepped in to try to end the practice.

They sent a strongly worded memo to all school districts this year, telling them they may shorten a special education student’s day only in “very limited circumstances.”

State law says students are entitled to a certain number of hours of instruction each year, from 900 for elementary students to 990 for high schoolers. Federal law says students with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive setting, alongside typically-developing peers as much as possible.

Besides breaking those laws, denying a student a full school day for a prolonged period of time can violate that student’s civil rights, said John Inglish, a specialist in charge of school discipline issues for the Oregon Department of Education.

Any short-term reduction in a student’s schedule “should be accompanied by a clear and measurable plan for increasing the student’s participation to a full school day as soon as possible,” the official memo says.

It goes on to warn that removing students for disciplinary reasons can harm students, “particularly students of color and students with disabilities.”

Students with disabilities who act out at school almost always have triggers that are well-known, or should be, to the school employees who work with them, Inglish said. And there are constructive ways to help students get back on track if they do show signs of frustration or anger, he said.

Inglish added that it’s not up to students with disabilities to figure out how to best cope with behavior challenges so they can stay in class and keep learning. It’s up to educators and school staffers to provide that support and teach those strategies.

For many students, changes in routines or transitions between activities must be handled with extra care, said John Mushlitz, a behavior specialist who helps group homes, families and schools analyze young people’s behavior and prevent outbursts. Other students are set off by bright lights, too much noise or other forms of over-stimulation, he said.

Students with heightened behavioral challenges can learn ways to soothe themselves when warning signs go off, Mushlitz and Inglish said. Taking a walk around campus with an aide, going to a quiet room or listening to music all can help certain students defuse their anger or frustration.

In interviews with The Oregonian/OregonLive, parents whose children were kept out of school did not dispute that their children acted in ways that scared or upset teachers or classmates. But they say schools must take responsibility for the circumstances that prompted the outbursts – and find support systems that allow the child to keep learning rather than be sent away.

Kaylee Ryan got that kind of support in first, second and third grade, says her mother, Jennifer Harding.

But in Dallas, where Kaylee lives, students attend one elementary school for kindergarten through third grade, then shift to Whitworth Elementary for grades four and five. When Kaylee moved to Whitworth last fall, educators said they couldn’t manage her, Harding said, even though her academic skills are strong and she loves to learn.

She says the school failed to help Kaylee regulate her behavior despite receiving concrete recommendations from her previous teachers. Those include not caving in to the girl’s demands, celebrating times when she shows sustained good behavior and allowing her to leave class for a quiet space when she needs to calm down, she said.

Less than a month into fourth grade, Kaylee’s school began sending her home early, with the principal saying she was too disruptive. By mid-October, Harding says, district special education director Autymn Galbraith officially limited Kaylee’s school day to 90 minutes.

Harding says Galbraith told her the district would lengthen Kaylee’s day by 15 minutes each week that she showed acceptable conduct – something that Harding calculated would have kept her daughter on reduced days until spring break.

Galbraith declined to speak to The Oregonian/OregonLive but said Assistant Superintendent Dennis Engle would. He did not respond to questions seeking comment.

Only when a lawyer stepped in on Kaylee’s behalf did the school switch gears and let her become a full-time student again, Harding said. By Thanksgiving, Kaylee was back to full days, and in January, she was promoted to fifth-grade, a better match for her academic skills.

Kaylee has been diagnosed with mild autism and general anxiety. But that doesn’t have to get in the way of her learning, Harding said.

“She wanted to be with her peers. This gets her back to full education,” she said. “I didn’t feel she was getting any kind of education at an hour and a half day.”

Kaylee’s family worked with Joel Greenberg, an attorney at Disability Rights Oregon.

Greenberg was among those who alerted the Oregon Department of Education when he realized how often he was hearing from families whose children had been consigned to as little as five or 10 hours of education a week. Some weren’t allowed to spend any time with students without disabilities or in a normal school setting, he said.

No one knows precisely how many Oregon students have been placed on prolonged partial-day schedules. But “it’s safe to say more than 1,000,” Greenberg said, “based on the limited fact-finding we are able to do.”

He said Inglish and the state education department deserve credit for not insisting on gathering more data but rather moving immediately to tell districts to end the practice.

Oregon law clearly requires a full school day, and having that time maximizes learning, Inglish said. So it made sense to get the word out quickly and widely to save any more students from suffering a loss of learning time.

Schools that restrict special education students’ schedules or routinely call parents to pick up their child before the end of the school day don’t have to report that practice to the state. The only way the state will know whether schools continue to restrict students’ days, Inglish said, is if parents report it.

Roberta Dunn, executive director of Family and Communities Together, which helps people with disabilities and their families stand up for their rights, said she thinks the state is working hard to get the word out.

Some schools will change overnight, she said, while others may need training and reminders. Her organization is happy to help any family having difficulties getting a full school day for their child, she said.

Tara Church, Grimmer’s mother, repeatedly asked Portland Public Schools to tell The Oregonian/OregonLive its rationale for putting her son on a partial-day schedule for an entire year, restoring him to full-day education only after a lawyer got involved.

The district first indicated it would discuss his case, with her permission. But after delaying for 10 days, officials decided it would be unwise, spokeswoman Christine Miles said.

“We have considered your request seriously, and understand that the parent may want us to talk to you directly,” she said. “However, upon careful consideration, we have decided to stand by our longstanding policy of not discussing specific students with the media.”

Church said the decision not to let Grimmer return to a longer school day came from Chrystal Grey-Watros, a central office special education administrator who oversees high school special education issues. Grey-Watros never met or observed Grimmer, Church said.

Church acknowledges that her son’s behavior on the day that triggered his switch to half days was of great concern: Upset at being pulled from using a computer, a favorite activity, the then-14-year-old ripped papers off the walls of his classroom, moved toward a student and possibly hurt an adult who blocked him. Then he ran from the school and into a busy street.

But she said a series of lapses by the district’s special education bureaucracy helped create the conditions that fueled her son’s outburst.

Franklin officials accidentally put Grimmer in a class far below his cognitive level for three weeks, then suddenly severed his ties to those students and teachers when they moved him to the correct class without proper support.

Even after the outburst, the school and district special education team could have – and should have – created a plan to safely return Jerry to full days, Church said. Instead, he lost the equivalent of half his freshman year.

Church and Grimmer have nothing but praise for his teacher and teacher aides, and say he is thriving at school and loves to be there.

Once restored to full days, “he would come home and he would tell me everything about his day, what he got to do, who he got to see,” Church said.

“He was more interested in choosing classes,” she continued. “He is taking a cooking class. He is given opportunities he didn’t have before. He’s smiling more.”

They still question the district’s decision to deny Grimmer full-day instruction, and say they hope the state’s memo helps other students avoid the same fate, particularly those with communication disorders or other vulnerabilities.

“I saw the impact it made on Jerry. He was angry a lot. He missed his classmates; he knew he was missing out on his education,” Church said. “I cannot imagine if my son had been nonverbal, if he had had no way to communicate those frustrations. It would have been 10 times worse.”

© 2016 The Oregonian
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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