Arkansas school district told to allow return of boy suspended after social media remarks, photo with gun

Judge raps Vilonia for defying order

Posted: May 16, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

With only a week of classes remaining before summer break, a federal judge has ordered the Vilonia School District to follow a state hearing officer's directive and return a suspended ninth-grade special-education student to classes.

The boy's attorney, Theresa Caldwell, said Tuesday that he is expected to be back in school today after 2½ months without any formal education or private tutoring.

Concerned about potentially suicidal and homicidal remarks the boy made on social media and in private conversations, and some photographs he posted of himself holding a gun, district officials have refused to let him back on campus since March 2, when he was sent home shortly after arriving at school after the principal learned of a post the previous night.

As a student who is considered disabled because of brain injuries, the 15-year-old is protected by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires the district to provide him with a free and public education in the least-restrictive environment available. Although records show he has "oppositional defiant disorder" and has acted out at school in the past, an individual educational assessment performed in October determined he should be placed in the general education setting alongside other students 98 percent of the time.

Under federal law, the boy's suspension was limited to 10 school days. However, citing concern for other students and staff members, the district filed a petition March 27 in Faulkner County Circuit Court to prevent enforcement of a "stay-put" provision in the law. They wanted to prevent the boy from returning to the school after the two-week suspension, which was followed by a week of spring break, until he could be re-evaluated.

The boy's parents had the case transferred to federal court, where, after an April 6 hearing, U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker, citing safety concerns, granted the district's request. Her order kept the boy from returning to campus until an expedited state administrative hearing scheduled to begin April 12 could be concluded, and a hearing officer appointed by the state Department of Education determined the best placement for the boy.

But after the hearing officer ordered the boy returned to classes on April 25, saying the district hadn't proved he was dangerous, the district defied the order and appealed it to Baker. In turn, the boy's parents asked Baker to order the district to reinstate the boy.

In an order issued Monday afternoon, Baker granted the parents' request for an injunction to make the district comply. Caldwell said school officials were willing to let him return to school on Tuesday, but he had a therapy session scheduled for that day, so he will return today instead. The last day of school in the district is May 24.

Baker scolded the district for failing to provide educational services to the boy at home or in an alternative setting while his placement was being evaluated. While the district contended the boy's parents rejected offered services, Baker said that nevertheless, evidence shows he hasn't received any form of educational services since his suspension.

"School District has violated, and continues to violate, orders by the state hearing officer as well as this Court," Baker said.

Baker's order didn't mention any potential sanctions against the district, and no motions to hold the district or its officials in contempt of court have been filed. Jay Bequette, an attorney for the district, was in court Tuesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Baker noted in her order that the state hearing officer, Dr. Robert Doyle, "made a determination, based on a full administrative record, that [the boy] was not a security threat and ordered [him] to return to school pursuant to his previous [individualized educational placement]."

She also admonished the school district for failing to show that it has taken any steps, as Doyle recommended in his report, to reasonably reduce the risk that the boy would cause injury to himself or others if returned to school.

Both sides are awaiting the results of a regular due-process hearing that followed the expedited hearing and will determine the boy's long-term placement. While the expedited hearing focused on safety concerns, the regular hearing included the testimony of a brain-injury expert and focused on the boy's special needs.

Baker said the district asked her to order the boy's placement in a day-treatment program until the final results of the latest hearing are released. But she said the district didn't cite any legal authority for that request.

Meanwhile, she said, she has the district's appeal of the administrative decision "under advisement."

She refused, however, to consider additional information the district sought to add to the court record May 7. The district said the information was received "from a concerned classmate" and was related to the boy's "current mental state."

The information was included in the district's request to enhance the record. It consisted of an affidavit from Principal Ronnie Simmons and attached screen shots from an April 19 Facebook Messenger conversation that he said the "concerned classmate" showed him May 4.

According to images of the conversation, the special-education student wrote, "You gonna miss me when I do this s**t."

Someone replied, "Do what," and the boy responded, "You'll see."

The other person replied, "Stop." Then a third person in the conversation chimed in, "Bro Chill TF Out Don't Do S***t Plz."

The boy replied, "Yall think I'm playin."

The boy also wrote that he was "just going back to the hospital." When asked why, he said, "Belt around my neck."

At one point, the special-education student told another boy, "I put a bullet in yo spleen," prompting a third person to intervene by saying, "No we are not doing this" and "Guys chill."

When the other boy to whom the spleen remark was directed later said he didn't want to fight but wished the special-education student would stop talking about suicide, the boy replied, "I'm sorry but sometimes I just wanna f*g end it. And sometimes I get so mad I wanna murder everything."

In another conversation with a girl, the boy said, "I need you." She replied, "Don't do this."

When she said she was planning to go to the movies on the weekend with another boy, but added, "me and him are not together," the boy replied, "Just remember I have a gun."

During the April 6 hearing in federal court, school officials said the boy was involved in a "love triangle" at school that played a part in their concerns about the safety of other students.

Metro on 05/16/2018