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A year of living dangerously

An autistic child's violence against classmates complicates his right to education - and theirs.

The breaking point for Roberta Bellamy was when her 9-year-old son, Kareem, came home from school traumatized after another student in his autistic-support class hit him in the back of his head.

It wasn't the first time that the classmate had hit Kareem - a student at Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia - and it followed more than a year of complaining by Bellamy about the disruption the boy had caused in her son's classroom. Two other parents said the boy had hit their children, too. And the district confirmed that the student had bitten his teacher.

"It's like this one child has more rights than the rest of the other children in the class," Bellamy said in an interview this month, shortly before she made her concerns public to the district's School Reform Commission. "Why did they have to allow these children a whole year of being beaten?"

The case illustrates a dilemma for the district: How does it ensure the rights of special-education students while protecting the rights and safety of others?

The difficulty was laid out this month in a note from the teacher to Bellamy. Kareem had been hit in the head May 3 and sent to the nurse.

"I wish there was more I could tell you about this situation," the teacher wrote. "We are doing everything we can to protect the children from injury. If something does happen, you have my assurance that we try to calm and console the child and talk to the child until he/she is no longer reacting to it. The child is also brought to the nurse just as a precaution."

The student's behavior was clearly caused by his disability - he is both autistic and mentally retarded - and the district can't discipline a student for behavior that stems from his condition, said Brenda B. Taylor, an associate superintendent who oversees special education in the district.

In response to the complaints of Bellamy and other parents, Taylor said, the district planned to move the student to a separate classroom with his own teacher until he can be transferred to a private school outside the district for more help. The child's parent has agreed to the transfer, she said.

The boy's father declined to comment.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard declined Thursday to say whether the move to a separate classroom had occurred, and said the district would release no more information on the case.

The district also would not say how many assaults on students are committed by special-education students.

Taylor defended the school's decision to keep the child as long as it did. Several adults run the classroom of eight children at Penn Alexander.

"Had they felt there was a significant danger to those in the classroom, they would have requested an approved private placement much sooner," Taylor said. "Any time an incident occurred in that classroom, the school went above and beyond in getting the resources in."

Officials decided to move the child once they concluded all in-district options had been "exhausted," she said.

Parents, however, said they were frustrated that it had taken so long. Their children suffered.

Brandi LaRue said the boy hit her 9-year-old daughter last school year. And the girl came home from school frequently this year talking about the boy's behavior, she said.

"My daughter doesn't want to go to school sometimes now. She's missed days because of it," LaRue said.

Gwendolyn Easterling said her son had come home from school with red marks on his face last month. He told her that the boy had hit him on the bus.

"This has been going on since last year," she said.

Bellamy has complained repeatedly to Penn Alexander officials and Taylor.

"They could remove that child. His hands are a physical weapon," Bellamy argued.

Her son has become withdrawn, teary-eyed at times, and depressed, and doesn't want to go to school, she said. He says, "No Penn Alexander. No Penn Alexander."

A district administrator offered to transfer Kareem to another school, which Bellamy opposed. Why should Kareem have to move? she argued. Change in placement can be disruptive to an autistic child.

She said she was relieved the boy would be moved, but remained upset that it took so long: "We had to go this far?"