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ROCHESTER Mom gains support for autistic son Battis set to meet with school district

Portsmouth Herald - 8/30/2017

ROCHESTER - Over the past couple weeks, Samantha Battis has swung back and forth between exuberance and frustrated heartbreak.

Battis, of Rochester, filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Education'sOffice of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging the Rochester School District has caused harm to her autistic son, Benjamin, 13, and mishandled his education over the past decade.

Since talking with Seacoast Media Group about her claims and the OCR's active investigation, Battis and her son have experienced some temporary but joyful reprieves. Those have included an all-expenses-paid trip to Virginia Beach for therapeutic surfing, as well as wake-surfing on Lake Winnipesaukee on Wednesday with local band Recycled Percussion and three-time world champion wake-surfer Ashley Kidd.

Battis said both of those experiences were "phenomenal" and showed her they're "surrounded by amazing people."

"I can't even tell you," she said. "It's been a whirlwind and my heart is filled with gratitude and happiness. We have had a really, really tough year. I can't even put into words how hard it's been It's almost erased everything we've been through."

Almost.

After they returned home from Virginia, and after they received an outpouring of support from community members who read Battis' story, which ran last Sunday, Battis received a painful notice from Ben's current school. That school is an out-of-district placement at Hopeful Journeys, located more than an hour away in Beverly, Massachusetts.

The email, which Battis received Monday, stated Ben's placement was suspended until Hopeful Journeys can "resolve financial obligation issues" with the Rochester School Department.

Hopeful Journeys and the Rochester School Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Rochester Superintendent Mike Hopkins previously said he cannot comment on the OCR case or Ben's education due to federal privacy laws.

The day after the Hopeful Journeys email, Battis received a brief email from the district asking her to come in Wednesday, Aug. 30 to discuss Ben's individualized education program, or IEP, and next placement.

Battis said Thursday the Aug. 30 meeting has been looming over her because she's been unable to obtain any additional information from the district. She also worries the district will recommend Ben be placed in a residential home rather than another school, as she said it has suggested that before.

Since 2007, Ben has been placed into 12 different schools or programs in an attempt by his family and the district to find an educational program that suits his learning needs. Some of those placements have been out of the district and out of the state.

Battis' OCR claim alleges that over the years Ben has gone without education for long stretches, has only had a handful of a full days of school, was sexually abused by another special needs student while in a Rochester-run program in 2010, and has been physically abused at various programs, some of which physically restrained Ben up to 8 to 12 times a day.

District restraint reports show the physical action was required because Ben was non-compliant or engaged in physical activity with another student. There have been too many reports to count, according to Battis.

Battis claims the outbursts and issues stem from the fact Ben has been improperly placed into ill-suiting programs, including being placed back into the Rochester Community Center room in which he was sexually abused in 2010, albeit after an entirely different program began using the space.

She also claims Ben's IEP hasn't been updated in years because the district hasn't properly evaluated him. She claims this would make it difficult to find a suitable program for her son. Battis said she feels these are some of the reasons why Ben bounces between programs every year, in addition to his development of a phobia of school.

"I'm beyond frustrated and beyond speechless," she said. "It's a violation of the law. I'm just so disappointed we cannot come together collaboratively and creatively to solve this dilemma. This is year 10 of a never-ending cycle. When can we get this right for this child?"

Hopkins has 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."

Battis said if the district and its attorney does in fact recommend an "archaic" residential placement for Ben at the Aug. 30 meeting, she believes it'll be difficult to fight it. The state Disability Rights Center informed her its caseload is too heavy to assist Ben at this time, and she said she has no way to pay for her own lawyer.

Battis cannot work due to Ben's care and lives off a $140 child support payment each week. Their Virginia Beach trip with professional surfers was funded through a GoFundMe campaign and Surfers Healing, an organization that provides opportunities for children with autism. Recycled Percussion organized Wednesday's wake-boarding session and flew Kidd into the area from Texas as part of a random act of kindness for Ben.

"Many kids suffer from autism and we want them to know we stand behind them and care for their happiness," wrote Recycled Percussion on its Facebook page. "This young man is incredible, he did awesome (Wednesday). Thanks Ben for hanging out with us, you made us feel special."

Battis is prepared to reject any placement Aug. 30 that doesn't involve a reevaluation of Ben and a placement in a school suited to his needs. She believes there is a school out there, even if specialized schools like the Rochester-based Monarch School of New England isn't a good fit. That rejection would trigger a two-day due process hearing, during which Battis will have to argue her side in court. She admits she'll be in over her head, but even if the outcome isn't in her favor, Battis said the process will be worth it.

She believes the hearing will continue to bring to light issues that affect a number of local families. She also believes she is opening avenues to help Ben, who she said had been feeling defeated and worthless until the community started to rally around him.

"(The Virginia Beach trip) showed him he's not just successful surfing in Maine, but that he's also successful in Virginia," Battis said. "In the car on our way home, he said to me, 'You know when I'm older, mom, I'm moving to Virginia Beach.' I said, 'Ben, you can go wherever your heart will take you.' Not only was it a good experience surfing, but it helped him learn he can go anywhere he wants and be successful."

Now the hope, according to Battis, is to find a way for school to have that kind of positive impact on her son.

 
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