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City special-ed lapses increase school violence

Without the help they need, these students commit a disproportionate percentage of assaults on staff.

Ellen Green-Ceisler says a failure to give services plays a role in school violence.
Ellen Green-Ceisler says a failure to give services plays a role in school violence.Read more

Frank Burd and James Footman never should have crossed paths at Germantown High School that February morning.

If the school had done its job, Footman, a ninth-grade special-education student with a long history of disruptive behavior and emotional problems, would have been miles away at a disciplinary school, as he had agreed three months earlier, getting help to control his anger.

Instead, he was cutting class and roaming the halls when another student pushed Burd, toppling the algebra teacher into Footman. The teen reacted by punching Burd - a man he didn't even know - three times in the face, causing him to fall and break his neck.

The Footman case points to serious and common lapses in the Philadelphia School District's handling of special-education students who can become violent and disruptive, tormenting teachers, staff and fellow students.

One student with serious emotional problems can demand almost all of a teacher's class time - even cause havoc throughout a school, as did Footman, now 15.

As a group, special-education students are responsible for an inordinate number of assaults on teachers and other school staff. While just 14 percent of the city's school enrollment, they committed 43 percent of the 7,547 assaults on staff during the last five years, district statistics show - a fact that stuns many of those who work in the schools daily.

Once assaults occur, school officials often discover that they have failed to provide these students the help they have been promised. If those services had been made available, experts say, some of those assaults might not have occurred.

And to compound the district's violence problem, once officials discover their failure to provide services, they often stop any attempts to discipline the students.

"To see a young person with needs that aren't being met by the special-education system end up arrested and in the juvenile-justice system is not at all uncommon," said Rhonda McKitten, director of the Defender Association of Philadelphia's special-education project.

Germantown High paid scant attention to Footman despite a school career riddled with warning signs, from temper tantrums and fights in kindergarten to a death threat against a teacher and an assault on an administrator in middle school.

The school not only failed to complete the paperwork to transfer him, but it also neglected to provide him with all the help called for in his special-education plan. It never updated that plan as required by law, and suspended Footman more days than allowed for special-education students, court records and interviews show.

Gregory Thornton, the district's chief academic officer, said he saw no problems with the implementation of plans for special-education students. "In isolated cases, when brought to our attention, we go in and make the corrections," he said.

"It would be fair to say we have opportunities for improvement throughout the entire district - until we are 100 percent compliant and there are no cases like this," he added, referring to Footman. Federal privacy law prevented him from discussing details.

But the lapses did not surprise some who are familiar with the district's disciplinary system.

After a serious incident in a city school, it is common to find out the student had a plan - like Footman's - that was disregarded, said Michael D. Basch, a lawyer with the firm Fine, Kaplan & Black who has represented special-education students for 17 years.

"They don't know how to handle students with emotional issues and students with attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder who are acting out," Basch said.

Perceptions of legal 'quagmire'

Most of the district's 26,700 special-education students do not create disciplinary problems. They receive counseling and extra classroom help for everything from learning difficulties to mental retardation according to their IEP - individual education plan. The 174,000-student district spends $220 million on special education - one out of every $9 in its $2.04 billion budget.

A state review of 106 student plans from two of 12 regions in the Philadelphia School District found that the district provided services 88 percent of the time - a rate better than the state average. A recent federal report based on information supplied by the district put compliance at 98 percent.

But parents say that services across the district are uneven, and that the deficit-ridden district needs more staff.

State and federal law say special-education students can't be disciplined for behavior that stems from their disability, except in serious cases.

Although the laws are designed to ensure that students get help to control their behavior, they can paralyze school officials.

After the Burd assault, it took a visit to the district by the state education secretary to underscore that special-education students who seriously hurt someone or are caught with a weapon or drugs can be sent immediately to a disciplinary school for 45 days. District chief Paul Vallas said he had thought they could not be moved immediately.

Most special-education students can also be suspended for as many as 15 school days each academic year. The law requires a parent's permission or state approval to suspend or transfer mentally retarded students.

"The law creates a dual disciplinary system," said Jack Stollsteimer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who took the state-funded safe-schools job in Philadelphia a year ago. "It is very confusing even for lawyers to understand."

Questions abound.

When can a special-education student be transferred? Does it matter whether the child is mentally retarded? When must a hearing be held? Can a child be disciplined if the behavior is a byproduct of a disability?

"The issue of special education throws a huge, huge wrench into the school discipline process," said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety & Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm.

Special-education advocates say schools fail the students by not providing the right services, Trump said. Others argue that special education has become such a "quagmire" that students are not being adequately disciplined, that they're "given many free passes," he added.

"The truth is somewhere in between," Trump said.

While the laws add a layer to the process, it is a myth that special-education students can't be disciplined, said Len Reiser, codirector of the nonprofit Education Law Center.

"Any time you have a complicated set of rules, some people will respond by saying: 'I just can't deal with that.' "

The laws are needed to protect the rights of special-education students, he said.

Michael Lerner, who heads the principals' union, said he understood that, but added: "I also understand the need to protect the rights of children who . . . are not discipline cases, who are there for an education."

Poor tracking leads to fallout

When special-education students are not disciplined, others can be put at risk because the accused student often returns to the classroom.

"Many of the students who are receiving special-education services understand the regs quite well and tell the teachers, 'You can't suspend me or do anything to me. I'm a special-education student,' " said Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. "It's a huge problem."

Harvey Rice, who monitored violence in city schools for four years as safe-schools advocate, said discipline issues involving special-education students arose "often enough that I knew there was a problem."

Ellen Green-Ceisler, who for months studied the district's disciplinary system and issued a highly critical report in March, said the failure to provide services to special-education students played a key role in school violence. It was one of the reasons staff cited to explain why four out of five students who committed serious offenses were not transferred to disciplinary schools.

Green-Ceisler and Rice said the district couldn't tell them how often discipline of special-education students was halted because their plans were not followed.

"By not tracking this information, they can't tell you how big the problem is," Green-Ceisler complained.

Brenda B. Taylor, an associate superintendent who oversees special education, said she was not hearing concerns from regional administrators.

"The problem hasn't come to me," Taylor said. "How significant could it be?"

But those who work in the schools see the fallout.

The district often doesn't know whether special-education students are receiving services. "Nobody gives a damn until they're trying to transfer a kid for some silly nonsense," said Chris Berglund, a staffer at a social-services agency who works with students and schools.

He cited several cases in which he had gotten schools to stop discipline - appropriately, he said - by pointing to failures in the special-education system.

In one example, a fifth grader at Webster School in Kensington spent several months without services after transferring from another school. The gap wasn't discovered until the boy misbehaved and the district tried to discipline him. The district blamed mislaid files.

Even today, officials cannot say whether the child received the services he was entitled to last year.

A history of problems

James Footman was born Feb. 24, 1992, with crack cocaine in his blood, to a large, struggling family. Both parents had serious drug problems.

Except for a few months when he lived with his mother, Footman was raised by his father and paternal grandmother. He has 20 siblings.

Within a month of starting kindergarten in September 1997, Footman was referred for a mental-health evaluation, and doctors diagnosed emotional problems and "adjustment disorder" - difficulty adjusting to new situations.

Yet his father moved often, and as a result Footman attended seven elementary schools in two years and repeated first grade.

In the classroom, Footman had temper tantrums, fought with teachers, and overturned desks.

By age 7, he was prescribed medication for attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Throughout elementary school, Footman missed between 35 and 60 days a year and was often suspended for trashing rooms, arguing, yelling, disrespecting teachers and fighting.

When confronted, he would deny the behavior and become angry and violent.

"He will try to run away and try to hide," said a school report describing the 9-year-old. "If allowed, he will roam the halls and bathrooms and harass students."

Even though teachers complained that Footman was more than they could handle, he was not evaluated for special education until the spring of 2000, when he was 9. He then started getting help with academics for part of each day.

By the time he was in seventh grade, Footman was placed in a class for children with emotional problems at Roosevelt Middle School in Germantown.

Footman wasn't there long enough to benefit from the program.

In late October, Footman told teacher Brian Costello, "I'll kill you," according to a report read in court.

A few weeks later, he erupted because his teacher wouldn't let him ride his scooter in class. He tossed books, folders and papers, and said he "always hears voices in his head, telling him to do something bad and good," according to the report.

After the school contacted police, Footman was taken to Germantown Hospital and Medical Center's Crisis Center, where staff directed his father to take him for follow-up treatment and make sure he took his medicine.

Footman's father did neither. He told his son's lawyers that he had been overwhelmed with his own problems.

Days later, Footman committed his first assault against a district staffer. He struck Walter Hopewell, Roosevelt's dean of students, who was trying to help Costello.

The assault was serious enough for Footman to be transferred to Daniel Boone, a privately run disciplinary school in North Philadelphia. He also was referred for psychological therapy, but he missed half of his 10 appointments.

At first, he had trouble at Boone, too. In January 2005, Footman became enraged when told to read a book; at age 12, Footman could read only on a third-grade level.

He hurled the book at a classroom sink, striking a hot-water pipe and flooding the room.

But there was improvement. He began to thrive in the controlled setting of the disciplinary school, where he got 10 hours of group counseling and 20 hours of emotional and behavioral help each week.

"James attends school regularly, and is almost always engaged in lessons," teachers reported. "James enjoys participating in class discussions. James responds well to positive feedback."

That lasted 18 months.

District officials decided last June that Footman was ready to return to a regular school. He was told to enroll at Germantown High in September.

Rulers who don't know the rules

Principals are responsible for disciplining students, and critics and the district agree that many need more training on the law.

At Frankford High, principal Richard Mantell struggled this year with how to handle a special-education student who twice took a knife to school. School staff mistakenly thought they needed a parent's written approval before they could transfer the child.

"We learned some things," he said, "and we can probably proceed a little quicker if this issue presents itself again."

The regulations have gotten some principals in trouble. Kevin King, former principal of South Philadelphia High School, was demoted to assistant principal, in part, because he suspended too many students, including mentally retarded students. Some special-education students were suspended more than 15 days, in violation of the law, said John Frangipani, King's supervisor.

The final straw came in October when King suspended for one day an emotionally disturbed student who cursed at a staff member and used a racial epithet. King said the student also had threatened an administrator, but district officials said they were not aware of a threat. The staffer involved did not return calls for comment.

King, who now works at William Penn High School, stands by his decision.

"If you allow those behaviors over a period of time, they become accepted," he said.

Frangipani said King should have given the student in-school suspension and taken district training to become better acquainted with regulations.

Plenty of blame to go around

Footman enrolled at Germantown High in time for the Sept. 4 opening, but his records did not arrive until Sept. 19.

He was supposed to get 30 hours of help each week, including 10 hours of group counseling, which Germantown did not provide, the district acknowledged in court records.

He was placed in a class to receive academic help four hours per day. But mostly he roamed the halls, fought and smoked marijuana, according to court testimony.

"He didn't get no help," said Gregory Mickeals, Footman's father. "No emotional support. No learning support."

Footman got nine suspensions for cutting class, being in the wrong place, fighting, and threatening students, and was kept out a total of 32 days, longer than the 15-day legal limit.

Because of Footman's many infractions, Germantown decided to send him back to Boone. Footman and his father agreed and signed paperwork Nov. 27, which saved the district from having to make its case at a hearing.

But Footman never returned to Boone.

The transfer was stalled because a special-education teacher had not devised a new education plan for Footman due on Nov. 10 or completed other necessary paperwork. Administrators had sent memos directing her to do so, the district wrote to Footman's attorneys.

Germantown principal Rose Ford, who declined to be interviewed, should have known all about Footman. She was principal at Roosevelt in 2004 when Footman assaulted an administrator there.

School officials said the transfer to Boone had not been a priority because Footman's many offenses were not serious enough to warrant immediate action. They hadn't involved weapons, drugs or serious injuries.

And Footman got some academic help at Germantown, said Taylor, the district's head of special education.

"He wasn't always in the halls," said Deborah G. DeLauro, a school district lawyer. "Unfortunately, he was in the hall that day, and that tragic thing happened - for everybody."

Burd was overwhelmed to learn that Footman didn't have to be at Germantown, and that he should not have been hurt. Yet he doesn't blame any one person for what happened.

"I feel bad for everybody - the kid who was missed and the assistant principal who probably was doing 20 other things," said Burd, whose injuries turned public attention to escalating violence against teachers.

Footman, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in a state juvenile facility for assaulting Burd, accepted blame, his attorney, William A. Bachmann, told a judge last month.

But Bachmann added, "Germantown failed legally and morally" in its duties to Footman.

Mickeals, Footman's father, acknowledged that he had not followed through at times with his son's treatment and medicine.

"I don't give the school all the blame," he said.

But Mickeals is upset that Germantown didn't transfer his son to Boone.

"That's three months," he said. "If there wasn't the delay, I don't think he would have gotten into this trouble."

For video interviews, legal information and past articles on violence against teachers go to



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