'I just want him to get him into school'
Portsmouth Herald - 8/20/2017
ROCHESTER - A local mother feels as if she has nowhere left to turn to resolve a nearly decade-long cycle of alleged mistreatment and abuse - both physical and sexual in nature - involving her autistic son.
Samantha Battis has filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Education'sOffice of Civil Rights against the Rochester School Department, alleging the district has mishandled the education and evaluation of her 13-year-old son, Benjamin, and his numerous out-of-district placements since he was involved in a lawsuit against the district in 2009.
That mishandling includes the events surrounding Benjamin's sexual assault in 2010, according to Battis. She said an 11-year-old boy with special needs allegedly touched her son, then 5 years old, when students were left alone during a program overseen by the Rochester School Department inside the Rochester Community Center.
In addition, Battis claims Benjamin hasn't attended a full day of school in more than a year. During the same period, she claims he also didn't receive all of the services outlined in his individualized education plan - an IEP the district hasn't updated in years, Battis alleges.
"This experience has made me realize I took for granted the right to go to school, which I thought was a right," Battis said. "He needs services. That's what this is all about."
The Office of Civil Rights has allegedly confirmed to Battis they're investigating the matter. Battis said the OCR recently organized a mediation session between her and the district, but she said it was unsuccessful. Following the mediation, Battis claims she was given a deadline of sorts to reach an "amicable solution" regarding Benjamin's education by Aug. 31.
Battis believes that deadline, the terms of which she said weren't clear, will come and go with unknown ramifications because the district allegedly favors placing her son in a residential home. She believes that vision is "archaic" and that the district hasn't done what it's supposed to do to find him a school that is suitable for a child with his diagnosis.
"They're all inappropriate for children with autism," Battis said of the district's suggested placements. "I just want him to get him into school. Why do I even need to fight for this? There are federal laws set up to protect children."
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the OCR has two separate active investigations involving possible disability discrimination within the Rochester School Department. However, he declined to provide additional information or confirm whether Battis' case is one of them, stating the OCR can't provide information about ongoing investigations.
Presumably, based on documentation obtained by Foster's Daily Democrat, one of those cases is Battis'. Foster's filed a Freedom of Information Act request Thursday with the OCR to obtain any and all documentation related to the Battis case.
The other OCR case involves Maple Street Magnet School's lack of wheelchair accessibility, for which the OCR has ordered the district to either renovate the school's building or move it to another location. The Rochester School Board is expected to vote on those options during a September meeting.
Rochester School Department Superintendent Mike Hopkins said he couldn't comment about Battis' case. He also said federal privacy laws prevent him from disclosing information pertaining to a student's educational program to anyone but the child or his or her guardian.
Foster's made a Right-to-Know request Monday for documents and information pertaining to how the district handled Benjamin's alleged 2010 sexual assault, although nothing had been received as of Friday.
Hopkins said he and the district "always hope to come to an agreement with parents for students to be in the school they should be in" and that families have the right to appeal decisions pertaining to their special education student.
"For any student, we're going to place them in a free and appropriate education," he said. "We want to see that happen (here), just as much as the mom does."
Hopkins said he'd "love" to say more, but cannot.
Benjamin has bounced between a slew of different programs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts every year for the past eight years. He's never stayed in one place for long because of alleged incidents in which he was either physical with other students or was uncooperative to the point of needing to be restrained, the district has allegedly claimed to Battis.
"The number of placements speak to not just one particular issue," Battis said. "When he's done well, it's been when his IEP has been followed."
Battis claims the issues with Benjamin's education began after he allegedly got physical with another child in 2009. That incident led the family of the other child to sue the Rochester School Department.
Battis has no proof her son has been educationally blacklisted since that suit, and she believes the issue stems more from a lack of money than ill intentions for her son. She said she hopes the OCR investigation will either reveal that or another concrete explanation.
"We are no further ahead now at 13 than when he was 5," Battis said.
Benjamin has developed a phobia of schools due to the ordeal, which has included programs that involuntarily restrained him up to eight to 12 times a day, according to Battis.
She claims the district at one point also put Benjamin back into the same room in which the sexual assault allegedly occurred. At the time, the room was being used for tutoring and mentoring services, not for the same program in which Benjamin was participating when the incident occurred in 2010.
Benjamin's current placement is located more than an hour away from his home in Beverly, Massachusetts. Benjamin attends programming on the school's grounds for one hour once or twice a week, but due to his phobia he has yet to actually go inside, according to Battis.
"What this does over time is turns a 13-year-old into feeling like a failure and makes him question why he should even try (to go to school)," she said.
There are some positives to Benjamin's story, including an upcoming therapeutic surfing trip in Virginia. The trip will be funded entirely by a successful GoFundMe.com campaign because Battis' only income is a weekly $140 child support check, as she's unable to work due to her full-time care for Benjamin.
Battis said she hopes her case, regardless of its outcome, will lead to changes that will help other autistic Rochester students. She said she also hopes to enact changes on a state or national level so no other students endure what her son has.
"It's disgraceful," she said. "We can do better than this."