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Teacher placed on leave in flap over autistic boy's treatment

The student tells his mother that he was ordered to sit in a cardboard box during class. The principal tells investigators that the boy voluntarily used the box as a refuge.

February 28, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

When Kim Rollins' son asked for a pair of scissors to take to school a few weeks ago, she was heartened that the fourth-grader, diagnosed with an autism-related disorder, was excited by a class project.

No, Sage Rollins explained, he didn't need the scissors for a project. He wanted them so he could cut a window in the cardboard box his teacher sent him to sit in.

Sage, 10, told her that his teacher at Ronald Reagan Elementary School, in the southwest Riverside County community of Wildomar, sent him into the box when she became upset with him. Before that, she forced him to sit in a darkened supply closet, according to Rollins.

"I was outraged. I was insulted," Rollins said from her home in Wildomar, near Lake Elsinore. "I cried when I heard.

School principal Nori Chandler told a Riverside County Sheriff's Department investigator last month that Sage went into a closet on his own, when he wanted "quiet time," and was never sent by the teacher. Sage also told the deputy he went on his own when he needed a quiet place.

The principal told the investigator that a district counselor provided a "decorated large cardboard box" for Sage that was placed in the back of the class, to provide a refuge for him when he had sensory overload, according to the investigative report, a copy of which Rollins gave The Times.

The box, about the size of a large television, was turned on its side, allowing Sage to use the open flaps as a door.

The deputy who investigated the allegations "failed to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing," and the case has been closed, said Deputy Joshua Morales, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department. The investigator's report said there did not appear to be any intent by any school employee to mistreat or abuse Sage.

Although she taught Sage in a mainstream classroom, Sabrina Beth MacFarlane has a state education specialist credential for working with special needs students. She has been placed on paid administrative leave by the Lake Elsinore Unified School District and was not available for comment.

"Appropriate personnel action has been taken, and the matter is under investigation," said district spokesman Mark Dennis. "We're taking this matter very seriously."

Rollins' attorney filed an administrative legal claim against the district and the teacher, a likely precursor to a lawsuit. The claim alleges that the isolation was involuntary, punitive and caused other fellow students to ridicule her son.

Using isolation as a punishment for a child with autism-related disorders not only is wrong, it is ineffective, said Ron Leaf of Autism Partnership in Seal Beach, which consults with school districts about teaching children with the disorders.

If the child knows that by acting out, he or she will be given a time out, the child may misbehave intentionally to avoid a stressful situation, such as a challenging lesson or participation in an activity, he said.

"What happened there is wrong in every which way," Leaf said.

Rollins said her son told her that the teacher had sent him to the closet or box for "time outs or when she was mad." She also said that her son went into the closet or box on his own as well.

"If he can get away from the person who is creating a meltdown for him, he would run and hide in the dryer," Rollins said, not being literal. "So the fact that he thinks the closet is a good thing, it means nothing to me."

Clinical psychologist B.J. Freeman, an autism expert at the UCLA School of Medicine, said children with autism "know how to push every button known to God," making it crucial that teachers have the temperament and training necessary to instruct students. That's especially important when students with special needs are placed in a mainstream classroom, Freeman said.

Sage said he found comfort in the darkness and isolation of the box.

"In the big box, I got to do so much relaxing in there," he told The Times. "I bring my jacket, a blanket. Some cushy things."

Rollins said she first noticed Sage's unusual behavior when he was 2 and avoided making eye contact. It wasn't until he was in school that he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which is within the autism spectrum of developmental disorders.

Children with Asperger typically are uncomfortable in social situations, have difficulty making friends and develop obsessive interests in a single object or topic. They also may speak in an overly formal manner. Sage is sensitive to loud noises and bright light, and a black curtain is draped across his bedroom to ward off the sunlight.

Until this year, his mother said, Sage had no problems at Ronald Reagan Elementary, where the staff implemented a specific education plan for him, including speech therapy class. An aide accompanies him during class, and a special education instructor and counselor monitor his progress, his mother said. The aide was not available for comment.

"I've always had good teachers who've been there for him," Rollins said.

That began to change when he entered fourth grade in August, Rollins said. She said her son often would complain about being scolded by his teacher. One day, the teacher threw all his colored markers into the trash when he was drawing during class, she said.

"Hey, I know he can get wound up, be a handful," said Rollins, who pulled her son out of school briefly after reporting the incidents. "But I don't see how anyone could act the way she did."

Sage is now in a different classroom, with another teacher. Still, he has had trouble adjusting. Twice in recent weeks he's thrown up after arriving home from school, Rollins said.

"Not because he's sick," Rollins said. "It's nerves."

phil.willon@latimes.com

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