Scales of justice
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A Fremont County school district filed a petition in federal court last month asking a judge to review an order from a state investigator that reversed the expulsion of a student with disabilities.

At the center of the controversy is whether an outburst — which allegedly included a threat to a staff member’s life — by a 15-year-old Riverton High School student was a manifestation of the teen’s disabilities, which include attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The student received special education services through the district. Multiple tests also found the student had an IQ between 66 and 72, according to an order overturning the expulsion, and he may have had other behavioral conditions.

On one side is Fremont County School District No. 25. Officials there don’t believe the student’s conditions played a role in the outburst that led to his expulsion.

What appears to be generally agreed upon is the details of the inciting incident. In December 2016, a paraprofessional at the high school told the student to join a different group of peers in an automotive class.

That “set the student off,” according to the investigative report, and the teen allegedly threw a pair of safety goggles and walked out of the room. The student — whose name is not revealed in court or state documents — then allegedly told another teacher that he was going to “kick his a—. I will f—-ing kill him,” referring to the paraprofessional.

The student then spoke with an assistant principal at Riverton High, who — at first — was unaware that the threat was made. The teen apparently asked to go back to the classroom, where he apologized. But the administrator was told about the threat.

“We believe that was the behavior that was the expelable offense,” said district Superintendent Terry Snyder. “We believe that was not an action that was a manifestation of his disability. And I’m going to protect the safety of my staff and students.”

Connected to disability?

After the incident, a “manifestation determination” meeting was held, to decide if the teen’s conditions played in role in his outburst. With the exception of the student’s mother, who participated in the meeting, the group’s members decided that the incident was not a manifestation of his disability.

At first, Snyder proposed a plan through which the student would avoid an expulsion. But if the teen had any other behavioral incidents, then he would be removed from school.

But before the agreement was finalized, another, undisclosed “behavioral incident occurred,” according to the state report by Bob Mullen, the hearing officer hired by the state Department of Education to examine the expulsion. The deal was canceled, and the student was ultimately expelled in February.

What followed were months of hearings and assessments as the student’s mother, arguing that the December incident was a manifestation of his disability.

Ultimately, Mullen examined the case and, citing an examination by two doctors, ruled in favor of the student and his mother.

“The Student’s behavior on December 14, 2016, in (the teacher’s) automotive class, for which the Student was subsequently expelled, constituted a single behavioral act, which was a manifestation of the Student’s disabilities,” Mullen wrote.

He continued, “The Student has a long history of difficulties—for almost as many years as the Student has been in school, it is incredible that a conclusion could be reached by (the district) that this was not in some significant fashion tied to the Student’s well documented limited cognitive capabilities.”

Mullen added that the district did not fully follow the student’s behavior plan and suggested that had the blueprint been dutifully carried out, the incident might have been “avoided, or failing that, effectively interrupted.”

Snyder — and the district — disagreed. Snyder maintains that the incident was not brought about by the teen’s disability. He added that the district had followed the student’s behavior plan.

The district filed a petition on Oct. 11 to have a federal judge examine the order.

For now, the student is still not back in his high school classroom, Snyder said; a stay was placed on Mullen’s order while a judge reviews the district’s petition.

Past issues

The December incident wasn’t the student’s first issue during his time in school.

“(B)eginning in Kindergarten through most of fourth grade, a period prior to the Student’s enrollment (at Riverton High), the Student engaged in behavioral issues which resulted in persistent discipline,” Mullen wrote. “Anecdotal notes and ratings indicate, for example, that the Student could not control personal behavior at school.”

In October 2015, the student told a bus driver that he “will bring a knife and kill everyone on the bus,” Mullen noted.

That incident also prompted a manifestation determination, though the results of that investigation are unknown. Snyder says there was disciplinary action taken, though he said he could not elaborate.

Mullen wrote that in the months before the December incident that led to the student’s expulsion, the teen was suspended at least four times. His mother expressed concern about his behavior and was told that the high school was “going to put a plan in place to help the student with behavior.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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