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EDUCATION Rep questions restraint policies

Portsmouth Herald - 9/2/2017

ROCHESTER - A local teen's story has inspired a state representative to pursue legislative action to change the way school districts handle the physical restraint of children with autism.

State Rep. Brandon Phinney, L-Rochester, is investigating how to implement a statewide policy that mandates district officials sit down with parents to review and revise their child's individualized education plan (IEP) if the child is physically restrained a yet-to-be-defined number of times in a given week.

Phinney said he hasn't yet determined what safeguards are currently in place, although he said more accountability is needed if a child like Ben Battis, 13, of Rochester, can be restrained up to eight to 12 times a day for noncompliance while simultaneously going years without district reevaluations and IEP revisions.

"I know if a child is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others, they have be restrained enough for their protection," he said. "I'm not exactly a fan of it, but I know sometimes the violent behavior can cause harm, so there has be balance there. I want to provide accountability for schools in case something goes out of hand as well as provide protection for parents so their children aren't victims of excessive force."

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether the Rochester School Department's has violated Ben's IEP and mishandled his education. Ben's mother, Samantha Battis, filed a claim with the OCR because she alleges Ben hasn't received full educational services or a full day of school in over year.

In addition, Battis claims that over the past eight years, Ben has gone long periods without educational services and has developed a phobia of schools due to 12 different out-of-district placements, countless instances of physical abuse, and a 2010 incident in which another special needs student sexually abused him during a Rochester-run program.

Battis said Ben wouldn't need to be physically restrained if the district revised Ben's IEP along the way and fully addressed the other issues. She said it's "satisfying" someone like Phinney has taken notice of her son's struggles, and she hopes a Phinney-sponsored bill will help other families.

"I begged for meetings on his IEP and was ignored, ignored, ignored," said Battis. "If they know they have to hold a meeting when so many restraints are done, then maybe some type of accountability would lead to positive change. If they keep meeting face to face, maybe districts will realize, 'Wow, (these restraints) are not working,' and ask themselves, 'What can we do to address this problem?'"

It's unknown what form the bill could take, as the idea is still preliminary and more research into school policies is needed, according to Phinney. Nothing had been proposed as of Friday.

"I'm absolutely willing to do the homework to get this done," he said, adding that issues like Ben Battis' are why representatives are elected.

Phinney said he doesn't want to add redundant legislation or measures that are overly difficult or burdensome for teachers to enforce, though.

"My goal isn't to increase government enforcement of something," he said. "My goal is provide an extra layer of accountability for the schools and protection for the children."

Following a two-hour IEP meeting Wednesday, the Rochester School Department and Battis reached a three-month agreement that Battis claims will help Ben receive full educational services for the first time in at least a year.

Battis said the agreement outlines that Ben will be allowed to return to his district-funded placement at Hopeful Journeys, a specialized school in Beverly, Mass., up to five days a week for the next three months. The school temporarily suspended Ben's placement last week due to a disagreement with Rochester school district about whether the district should have to pay for Ben when he's not receiving services.

The district will pay for Ben's transportation to Hopeful Journeys so Battis can work for the first time in over a year, conduct Ben's first functional behavioral assessment in years, and provide full occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, and counseling services, according to Battis.

Come the first week of December, the sides will sit down again to assess Ben's progress, "collaborating as a team" to see the agreement has helped Ben and whether he's meeting certain goals and benchmarks, according to Battis.

If the district deems Ben hasn't met his benchmarks, Battis said Ben's IEP would default to a one-on-one tutoring program.

Battis claims it's possible the district may also recommend Ben be placed in a residential facility if he doesn't meet his benchmarks.

She alleges the district emphasized that option multiple times during Wednesday's IEP meeting because they feel "nothing's working." Battis is opposed to a residential placement.

Rochester School Department Superintendent Mike Hopkins said Wednesday he couldn't comment on the alleged residential recommendation.

"Hopefully people realize we want him in a successful program as much as his mom does," he said.

"That's what we're trying to get him into."

 
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