‘Most vulnerable students in Clay:’ District violated special needs students’ rights, parents say

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. — At six years old, Michael has lost his mother, battled a learning and behavioral disability and been expelled from kindergarten at Clay Hill Elementary School.

And when his guardian and grandmother Diana Toth tried to get him help, she said she couldn’t get it.

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“I was getting notes from the teacher saying ‘Michael won’t sit still.’ ‘He’s not paying attention.’ ‘He’s wiggling on the carpet.’ That kind of stuff,” Toth told Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner. “That goes along with the ADHD. That’s part of the reason I was asking for the reevaluation.”

He was already on an individualized education program -- or IEP. It’s a legal document that lays out the special education instruction, support measures and services a child needs to thrive in school. But after multiple in-school suspensions for things like coloring on the carpet, Toth said Michael wasn’t thriving.

“It’s very heartbreaking,” Toth said, “to think that they took a kid that was so excited and happy to a child that was not wanting to get out of bed.”

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In her complaint to the Department of Education, Toth told the Office of Civil Rights that Clay County District Schools failed to provide the her with procedural safeguards around a meeting about Michael’s IEP, that he was treated differently from non-disabled students when disciplined, and that the district retaliated against the boy by giving him disciplinary infractions and expelling him.

After Michael was kicked out, Toth got him reevaluated, like she’d asked the district to do. She says his new IEP went from behavioral help one day a week to five days of educational AND behavioral services.

“They weren’t trying to help him at all,” she said of the school district. “He wasn’t learning anything.”

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The Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating Michael’s case, and while his complaints are the only two disability discrimination claims against the district on the federal level, last month’s school board meeting heard similar stories.

Teacher and special needs mom Shannon Hube said, “my children were denied food we give free to the students of this community,” she said during public comment, “They might not eat, but how will they learn if they are not exposed ... So today, his IEP, a legal document, was violated.”

Patricia Schaffer, another mother with a special needs child, scolded the school board saying, “These are our most vulnerable students in Clay County. Why? You’re putting more onus on rations and data than actual education.” Adding, “enough is enough we need to stop the violations of IEPs and 504s.”

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It is hard to track the number of times an IEP is violated because there is no official complaint for parents can fill out. The closest thing is for parents to request a meeting to review their child’s IEP. Action News Jax asked the district for the number of times that has happened this year but has not yet received that information.

Clay County District Schools sent Action News Jax the following statement about Toth’s complaint:

“Clay County District Schools is familiar with this complaint and maintains that district staff and teachers have provided everything needed by the student and required by state and federal law to meet the student’s learning needs. The district is confident that resolution of any outstanding issues can be achieved through mediation, which is ongoing. Additionally, CCDS is has many avenues of communication for families to utilize, and maintains issues cannot be remedied without open dialog (sic). Families are encouraged to contact their child’s teacher, school-based administration, and a relevant district office to voice any concerns.”

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