06/12/2007

SPLC Complaint Alleges Neglect and Abuse of Special Education Students at Mississippi School

On his first day of kindergarten, Lavonta Anderson was asked if he knew his address. When he said that he did not, his teacher pulled out a paddle and hit him repeatedly.

Anderson was paddled again the following day, when he again told his teacher that he did not know his address. Another paddling came the day after that, and it continued each day for months until he finally got the courage to tell his mother what was happening. Anderson is now in the 8th grade, but he reads at a 3rd grade level. He has a phobia of school and is not given any additional support in the classroom.

On May 30, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a complaint with the Mississippi Department of Education on behalf of Anderson and nine other students alleging that the Holmes County School District systematically neglects and abuses some of its most vulnerable students.

"Students in Holmes County School District (HCSD) were in many instances abandoned by the district," said Jennifer Riley-Collins, an attorney with the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project. "Most of these students are special education students who were repeatedly assaulted by the very teachers who are supposed to support them."

According to the complaint, at least one of those teachers called the police and threatened to kill a student because the teacher believed that the student, identified as W.J. in the complaint, had vandalized her automobile. The teacher told police that she did not want them to find W.J. laying on the ground because she had lost control. She later added that if W.J. came to her house and was subsequently found in a ditch by the house "then what happened will be between her and God."

School documents show that W.J., who had a seizure disorder, was whipped repeatedly by his special education teacher, who accused him of having outbursts. Despite requests from his parents that his teacher not use corporal punishment, the whippings continued.

Although the school district implemented an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him, W.J. has not demonstrated any academic progress. The complaint contends that the district has repeatedly failed to develop IEPs that are reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit for the students.

In addition, the complaint alleges that the school district:

  • Has failed to appropriately identify and provide extended school-year services for students in need;
  • Does not comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's disciplinary regulations;
  • Has failed to provide sufficient related services to students, such as psychological counseling;
  • Has failed to provide appropriate transition plans for students with disabilities to reach specific education, training and employment goals;
  • Has failed to adequately identify children with disabilities; and,
  • Violates parents' rights to records.

Among other improvements, the complaint seeks to have a special master hired by the district to conduct intensive trainings in the district for a minimum of three years and monitors brought in to ensure that necessary improvements are made.

"It's going to take a paradigm shift to keep kids from being abused," said Riley-Collins. "There needs to be massive retraining and a shift from corporal punishment and removal from schools to positive behavioral support."

In the fall of 2003, the SPLC entered into a consent decree with the Mississippi Department of Education in Mattie T. et al. v. Johnson. The original suit challenged Mississippi's failure to ensure that local school districts identified, evaluated and provided appropriate educational services to students with disabilities.

The decree, which lasts until 2011, requires the state to improve its identification of students who have disabilities and ensure that disabled children are educated with their non-disabled peers to the extent that it is possible. The state is also required to eliminate discriminatory assessment of gifted and disabled youth. In many school districts, black children are identified as mentally retarded at a far greater rate than white children, while white children are generally identified as gifted at a far greater rate than their black peers.

The new complaint contends that despite the Mattie T. decree, the Holmes County School District still is not appropriately identifying children with disabilities. On average, 12 percent of a school district's population is disabled in Mississippi. In Holmes County that number is 8 percent.