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Arkansas district sues to bar teen in gun post from school

by Linda Satter | March 29, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated March 29, 2018 at 3:30 p.m.

The Vilonia School District has asked a judge to prohibit a 15-year-old special-education student from returning to school after he posted a picture of himself on Snapchat holding a gun and reportedly said he wanted to kill someone and spend the rest of his life in prison.

After the district filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Faulkner County Circuit Court, citing concerns for the safety of students and staff members, the boy's parents transferred the case to federal court. They want a federal judge to order the district to allow the boy to return to the Freshman Academy, which is the district's school for ninth-graders.

They cite the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, a federal law that governs the education of students who receive special-education services and requires public school districts to make accommodations to ensure that the students receive free and equal educational opportunities.

On Wednesday, the district asked a federal judge to remand the case to circuit court, arguing that it concerns an urgent safety matter and doesn't involve the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which allows for federal court jurisdiction only on appeal of a final administrative decision in a due process hearing.

An administrative hearing on the boy's March 6 suspension and his ultimate placement in accordance with federal law is set for April 12, but the district needs "immediate redress in the form of a temporary restraining order," the lawsuit states.

The district said the boy was suspended from school March 6 -- five days after the social media post and the same day a student intern "came forward" about a conversation the intern had with the student, in which the student calmly said, "I just want to fight someone and end up killing them and go to prison for the rest of my life."

"The District cannot maintain the suspension for an extended length of time because [the boy] is not subject to the District's discipline policy due to his IEP [Individualized Education Program, which is part of the IDEA]," the lawsuit states, adding, "If an order is not in place restraining [the boy] from returning to the school, harm will occur as he constitutes an ongoing danger."

The district wants the boy to continue his education through a day treatment center, which is one of three options available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when a special-education student cannot be accommodated at the school itself. The day treatment option isn't as restrictive an environment as residential placement and doesn't require the student to remain homebound, which is the other option.

However, the district asked the state circuit judge to order that the boy remain in homebound placement until his parents can complete the necessary paperwork to place him in a day treatment facility.

The district's filing notes that it "does not dispute its obligation to pay for this alternative placement, and stands ready and willing to do so."

According to the lawsuit, the boy suffers from multiple disorders, including traumatic brain injury, memory deficits, psychomotor deficits, frontal lobe and executive function deficit, depression and oppositional defiant disorder. It says these conditions were documented in a neuropsychological evaluation dated May 4 of last year.

Attorney Theresa Caldwell of Maumelle, who represents the boy and his parents and specializes in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act cases, couldn't be reached by phone Wednesday. But in court papers she said, "the District must follow the process provided in the IDEA to remove Student from school."

According to the lawsuit, a photo the boy posted of himself holding a handgun with his finger on the trigger included the hashtag (in all capital letters) "#Iloveitwhentheyrun."

The lawsuit says "other video," which it didn't describe further, "depicted [the boy] with a gun, acting as if he were shooting the gun, and talking about killing. The video showed the word 'kill.' [The boy] also posted a photo of some classmates with the head of one of the classmates circled in red."

The postings led Vilonia police to arrest the boy on a charge of harassing communications, the suit noted. Later that same day, it said, the boy told the district's special-education director that he was depressed and "almost killed himself by hanging."

The suit says the boy also posted a photograph of himself with a belt around his neck, and later showed the photo and a social media exchange with another student with whom he discussed the "near suicide," to the director and the school principal. It says he shared the information while he "openly and politely explained his actions over the week."

The lawsuit states that a mobile phone turned over to school officials by another student, who gave officials access to its content, showed that the special-education student had posted a video of himself with a handgun in which he said, "I don't fight to hurt. I fight to kill."

Nationally, educators and disability rights advocates have debated whether school disciplinary practices disproportionately target students with disabilities by punishing them for behaviors related to their disabilities.

On the other hand, the Vilonia district's lawsuit cites its obligation to other students in requesting an injunction to restrain the boy from attending classes or school functions. It argues that doing so is in the public interest and without it, irreparable damage may occur.

"The District cannot remove [the boy] from his current educational placement on a long-term basis without violating his rights to be educated," the district conceded in its lawsuit, "but this Court can enjoin [the boy] from returning to school at the District until a more suitable educational placement can be identified."

Metro on 03/29/2018

Print Headline: District sues to bar teen in gun post from school

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