Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Best To Teach A Troubled Teen? The Question Can Get Stuck In Court

David Williams
Illustration Works/Corbis

After the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., advocates for children in the state put a renewed focus on special education and children who need help.

One challenge? Getting parents and school districts to agree on what to do.

At a house in West Hartford, a young man and his grandfather are watching movies. First, it's The Love Bug. Now, it's Aliens.

"There's a lot of action scenes in it," says the young man. He's still a teenager, actually, a big 19-year-old who loves comic books and martial arts.

His mother is Carol. She doesn't want to identify her son because she fears going public with his mental health issues could cause him harm. So we're not using her last name, either.

Carol says her son craved social interaction ever since he was young, but he struggled with it. Then, in high school, he started to change. He was getting bullied. He became withdrawn and paranoid. His grades dropped.

"And when I went in and asked him, he was getting ready for school, I said, 'What's going on? What's happening? This is not like you.' He said, 'It doesn't matter. I'm not going to be around, anyway.' ... So, I asked, 'What do you mean? Are you talking about suicide?' And he said, 'Well, yeah.'"

She says he has since been diagnosed with ADHD, autism and psychosis. He was in a fight club at school. He's been arrested after an assault at school, and he's threatened to kill the psychiatrist who once had him committed. Once, Carol called the police herself to have him hospitalized. That's when he left the house running with a knife.

At one point late last year, Carol brought her son's story to local TV station WFSB. The story compared Carol's son to Newtown shooter Adam Lanza: "Tonight, we're talking exclusively to another mother who says the similarities are just too eerie."

People in West Hartford were alarmed. Calls flooded into the school district, which temporarily banned the teenager from school property.

Since then, Carol and the West Hartford Public Schools have been at an impasse. Even though her son has enough credits to graduate, he's still eligible for services and the two sides are locked in an expensive legal battle over what those services should be.

Federal law calls for students like Carol's son to get a free, appropriate public education. The district says its own programs provide just that. But Carol disagrees. She wants the schools to pay for a private facility with one-on-one services from people trained to help her son manage his potential for violence.

"My fear is if he's not properly supervised and learning those things one-on-one that, first of all, he'll fail. And, secondly, we have the possibility that it could turn into a situation that could become violent and we don't want that to happen."

At the core of the dispute is this: The two sides see a different teenager.

Social worker John Thomas says Carol's son can manage his mental illness when he's in psychotherapy and working with people he trusts. "But, if somebody reacts to him the wrong way, he could put them in his cross hairs, so to speak, and see this as somebody who needs to be killed," he says. "Because he sees that as a viable option."

But it's as if the West Hartford school district has met an entirely different student. Susan Freedman, an attorney who represents the schools, says Carol's son regularly goes out with friends without one-on-one supervision. He's only had one fight at school. He was a good member of a wrestling team.

"We did not see him as dangerous," she says. "He's not hurt anyone."

Freedman says that the district's program would be appropriate for Carol's son. And while a district isn't supposed to consider the money, there's no avoiding the reality that what Carol is looking for would cost more.

"The district was faced with the difficult choice of, should we go ahead and pay the $500,000 for the next three years for a program that we don't believe is the right program for the student?" Freedman asks.

Carol's attorney says the program would cost far less than that. Either way, it's another point of contention between the two sides in their dispute, which, like others, is stuck in federal court.

Lehigh University's Perry Zirkel, a professor of law and education, says special education cases make it to federal court much more frequently than general education cases.

There are many reasons why. First, the laws that govern special education are ambiguous and provide open doors to litigation, he says. And there's this: "We want the best for our kids, and school officials from teachers on out want the best and that's why they're in the profession."

But Zirkel says achieving that goal can be hard. Because while we may want the best, we don't always agree on what that means. And, even if we did, we haven't wanted to pay for it.

Carol says she's not looking for the gold standard. But until a federal judge rules on whether the district's program is appropriate, she's keeping her son at home.

Copyright 2015 Connecticut Public

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director.