Medical providers who evaluated River wrote in records, reviewed by KING 5, that the Bellingham School District failed to consistently implement his IEP or follow his behavior intervention plan. The missteps began, they said, when River was enrolled at Geneva Elementary School during first grade and the start of second grade.
“Unfortunately, there was not a curriculum in place to support his strengths,” wrote Shelly Brask, an occupational therapist, in an August 2015 letter to the school district. “He was often ‘punished’ for the skills that set him apart (information seeking, high verbal skills, and anxious behaviors that interfere with classroom participation).”
River is a cautious and skeptical child, who is slow to build trust with adults and peers. When he feels rejected, shamed or misunderstood by the people around him, his anxiety spikes, according to his parents. He’s fascinated by elevators and toilets, and when he’s stressed or anxious, he self-soothes with OCD rituals related to those things.
Both River’s parents and his medical providers report those behaviors can appear disrespectful, oppositional and disruptive when his stress level is high. They say his educators didn’t use the correct tactics to manage his anxiety. Instead, they misinterpreted the child’s outbursts and rituals as willful.
“He has been shamed in front of the class for behaviors he has difficulty controlling,” Fisher, River’s psychiatric nurse, wrote in March 2015. “The teachers’ response often worsens the anxiety and thus exacerbates the behavior of the child.”
A review of River’s discipline reports reveal that school staff responded to his outbursts with isolation and restraint. During a six-day period in second grade, River was either isolated or restrained seven times. In one incident, school officials documented that the intervention lasted three-and-a-half hours.
“I felt like I was in a dungeon," River said, when asked about the isolation. ”Like I felt like I was never going to be able to do any fun things again or anything.”
Under state law, school districts are allowed to isolate or restrain students only when there is a threat of imminent harm. While the district cited safety concerns as a reason for using the tactic, River’s medical providers determined it wasn’t the right option to address the child’s behavior, according to a review of his medical records.
“It was traumatic for him, and it shaped his future,” Erin said. “He stopped trusting. He stopped believing. He stopped thinking of himself as a capable learner. He stopped thinking of himself as a friend. He started thinking of school as an unsafe, dangerous place, and he just said ‘I’m just a scared kid and nobody knows how to help me.’”
His response to the intervention was severe. His parents said they were forced to pull him out of Geneva Elementary School after the first six weeks of second grade because he refused to walk through the front door.
“He gave up, and when he gave up, he gave up hard,” Erin said.