District probes suspension issues at Pulaski Street after parent’s complaints

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Parent Yolanda Thompson speaks to the Riverhead school board about her son, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, and his repeated suspensions.

After Yolanda Thompson’s 12-year-old son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and placed on medication last November, she thought his persistent discipline problems at school might subside.

And if he continued to act out, she thought, at least school officials would think twice about regularly sending him to in-school suspension, as they had been accustomed to doing — often without her knowledge.

But even after the diagnosis this school year, Ms. Thompson said her son, a sixth-grader at Pulaski Street School, was sent to in-school suspensions 14 times, Ms. Thompson said. The suspensions ranged from 15 minutes to over four hours long, and the reasons ranged from “being disruptive” to “throwing things at students,” according to paperwork Ms. Thompson supplied to the News-Review. There is no after-school detention at Pulaski Street.

The actions against her son, she said, violates district policy about suspending students because of issues related to medical symptoms. Ms. Thompson also said she should have been notified of each and every in-school suspension, as required by district policy.

Throughout her son’s discipline, proper disciplinary procedures and due processes were not followed, she insisted while telling her story to the Riverhead school board during Wednesday night’s meeting.

“His rights to pursue an appropriate public education have been violated on a repeated basis,” she told board members, none of whom responded.

Both Ms. Thompson and Arlene Gagliano, the president of the Special Education Parent Teacher Association who also spoke Wednesday night, demanded the school investigate the incidents involving Ms. Thompson’s son — who is now being home-schooled — to ensure no other students are being disciplined for behaviors related to disabilities.

“It’s been brought to our attention that there are some students who are spending their time in suspension at Pulaski Street School who shouldn’t be,” Ms. Galiano said, adding that her main goal is to prevent other children from being repeatedly suspended and that parents are always informed.

“Is the problem that we don’t have the procedure, or is the problem that the procedure is not being followed, or both?” she said. “We just want to make sure this isn’t happening to anyone else.”

District superintendent Nancy Carney said in an interview after the board meeting that discussions had already begun about the alleged incidents to make sure repeated suspensions for behavior related to disabilities would not happen to other students.

“I have met with her and everything has been addressed,” Ms. Carney said. “We have actually just put our team together to update our code of conduct, and I met with principals to ensure all guidelines are being completely followed by everyone. We’ll be discussing alternatives, and making sure you try everything else prior to [in-school suspensions].”

Ms. Thompson also blames one of her son’s teachers, who she claims verbally abused him regularly during school.

A recent incident between Ms. Thompson and a teacher led the teacher to take out a temporary restraining order against the mother after the latter allegedly threatened her and pushed her with her finger, Ms. Thompson said.

Ms. Thompson — who is for now barred from getting within a certain distance from Pulaski Street School — said she is innocent and is seeking to have the restraining order lifted. She said she started home-schooling her son after the temporary restraining order was issued.

During her address to the board, Ms. Thompson also criticized the district for making it difficult to obtain records related to her son’s disciplinary actions. She said it took four attempts to get the right documentation of her son’s lengthy suspension records.

Ms. Thompson also encountered roadblocks when she asked the district for its entire code of conduct, she said. She eventually received the code, but not before an administrator stopped her on her third attempt and asked why she wanted to see it.

“I don’t owe you an explanation,” Ms. Thompson recalled of what she said during the run-in with the administrator. “I’m a parent and a member of the public.”

The school district is currently not required by state regulations to post its code of conduct online, but a new amendment to the federal Dignity for All Students Act would require districts to post their full code of conduct online, as well as mail it home to all parents with children in the district before the year begins. That amendment will be discussed at the New York State Board of Regents meeting in March, and if passed, would be effective July 1.

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See the Feb. 23 News-Review newspaper for more details and updated information.