By the time Alex was preparing to enter kindergarten, his parents began noticing quirks in his behavior. Though precocious and mild-mannered, Alex struggled to control his emotions at times. His parents, Angi Brookshire and James Thompson, suspected what was recently diagnosed: Like more than a million children in the United States, their son has autism. We are concealing his true name to protect his identity.
The married couple was proactive, hiring an occupational therapist when Alex was 3 and notifying the staff at Alex’s school that their son may have unique learning needs. That was the fall of 2016. The parents never imagined Alex would be sent home 12 times his first year of kindergarten for behavior that Brookshire and Thompson said easily could have been handled at school if the staff had the proper training and adequate resources.
“He doesn’t handle social situations well at times,” Thomson said. “But how is he going to learn if they keep sending him home?”
An early diagnosis of ADHD by a Fort Worth school district psychologist didn’t sit well with the parents. Not only did the medical determination not reflect Alex’s behavior, they said, but it also gave the appearance that the school district was denying Alex resources typically afforded through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The unexpected calls to pick up Alex created “ridiculous stress” for the family, Brookshire said.
“No parents should have to deal with that,” she said.
Brookshire, who had a demanding job as a nurse for the health insurance company Amerigroup, said the abrupt calls meant canceling important meetings and leaving work early.
Alex was usually in tears by the time his mother arrived. The school principal would often berate the young boy, Brookshire said, listing his alleged transgressions openly as Brookshire tried to soothe her son.
“There was no need to talk about it in front of him,” Brookshire said. “She has no idea how to deal with kids.”
The parents are quick to note that the teachers and staff at the school are overwhelmingly caring and dedicated, but the principal’s combative behavior toward parents has convinced Brookshire and Thompson that the principal is “unfit” for that position.
I reached out to the principal and the school district for comment on this story. Due to the specific case involved, school district spokesperson Clint Bond referred me to the district’s legal department and informed me that the principal cannot comment due to restrictions outlined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Alex’s first grade experience didn’t go much better. School staff continued to send him home, sometimes on a near weekly basis. After repeated calls by Brookshire to the school district’s special education department, a second psychologist came and diagnosed Alex with autism. School district officials then began discussing the possibility of sending a speech therapist once a week while developing a Behavior Intervention Plan that would allow access to a “cool down” area for Alex when needed. The most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was the year and a half it took to receive meaningful help and guidance from the school district, Thompson said.
“The school didn’t give any direction,” he said. “We had to figure it out on the fly. The process is designed to beat you down until you give up.”
After documenting what Brookshire and Thompson said were a pattern of missteps on the school district’s part, the couple filed complaints with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office that cite what the parents believe are intentional delays on the school district’s part in responding to open record requests. The parents are asking for Alex’s disciplinary records, which may show violations of school district policies. Thompson said he next plans to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and Texas Education Agency for possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They have also sent emails to the school district superintendent, board of trustees, and several high-level administrators. Thompson said he doesn’t expect to hear back from the school district.
“They protect their own,” Thompson said, referring to a perception held by some that the school district protects staffers at the expense of parents and students. “That’s the way it seems with this principal.”
Looking back, Thompson sees a confluence between his son’s initial misdiagnosis and a Texas Education Association policy at the time that illegally excluded around 150,000 children from counseling and therapy between 2004 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The Texas policy, rescinded last year, established a quota for the maximum percentage of students who could receive special education services.
A recent report by the social justice nonprofit Texas Appleseed found that children in Texas classrooms are pushed out of their schools at alarming rates, usually for “minor behaviors that should be addressed through school-based supports and interventions.”
In the 2015-2016 school year, the report said, Texas schools issued 63,874 out-of-school suspensions to young children. Citing data from the Texas Education Agency, the report went on to note that Fort Worth school district policy allows for some of the “most vague and trivial” reasons in the state for suspending students. The school district’s policy includes “being disrespectful” and “violating safety rules” as acceptable reasons for sending a young child home. Last year, Dallas school district board members revised its school district disciplinary policy to address the issue by raising the threshold for acceptable reasons (bullying and fighting) to send a young student home.
Alex’s parents recently made the difficult decision to pull their child from the school and enroll him in a private school. Brookshire said she holds no animosity toward the school district, but she does want to ensure that other parents never have to go through the ordeal she experienced at the school.
“As taxpayers with children in Fort Worth schools, the district should respond” to our concerns, she said. “I can’t imagine what parents who don’t have the time and resources to deal with this would do.”