Wednesday, July 3, 2013 | 2 a.m.
An 8-year-old special-needs boy was transferred from a Clark County School District classroom late this spring after a classmate's parents filed court papers to seek a restraining order against him.
In May, Robert and Sara Soncini filed a motion in Clark County District Court to place a restraining order on the special-needs boy after he allegedly threatened their 7-year-old daughter in class. Both children were second-graders at Conners Elementary School in the northwest valley.
Over a three-month period, the boy allegedly threatened the girl with scissors and pushed and punched her in the stomach, the Soncini parents said. Other students in the classroom allegedly were hit with a book and a lunchbox, and a teacher was punched and kicked, they added.
The parents found out about the incidents when their daughter came home crying one day, they said.
"She told us she's scared to be around this boy," Robert Soncini said. "We're upset that our child is being assaulted and threatened with sharp objects."
The boy's behavior apparently became so disruptive the teacher created a "safe word" to inform students to leave the classroom during the boy's episodes, the Soncini parents said. These "classroom evacuations" allegedly happened about three times a week, they added.
"The school never contacted me about this," Sara Soncini said. "None of the parents knew what was going on in the classroom."
The parents tried working with the school's leadership, but the officials said their hands were tied because of the boy's rights under federal law. Exasperated, the parents began the process of seeking a restraining order in an attempt to protect their young daughter.
"I don't want to have to put a restraining order on this kid, but this is our last resort," Robert Soncini said. "It's ridiculous. It shouldn't have to come to this point."
Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became the law of the land nearly three decades ago, mainstreaming of children with special needs has become a common occurrence.
Mainstreaming is the practice of educating children with special needs in regular classrooms instead of separating them into a special-needs-only classroom.
IDEA mandates that public schools place students with less severe mental and physical disabilities in a regular classroom but provide them with supplemental resources and services. If a child's Individualized Education Plan calls for a more specialized classroom, that would be a secondary option considered only after mainstreaming failed.
Proponents argue mainstreaming helps students with special needs do better in school and develop better social skills. They say other students also may develop a better understanding and tolerance for children with special needs.
Critics, however, point to cases like the Soncinis’, where a child with special needs disrupts the education of other children. Federal law requires equal opportunity for all children to receive a “free and appropriate” education.
Hence the question at the center of this debate: Does the right of a child to an appropriate education trump the education — and safety — of other children in the classroom?
"Everyone has a right to an education, but what about my daughter's education?" Robert Soncini said. "I'm all for giving due process, but when you're threatening other students, that's unacceptable."
"How is this learning?" Sara Soncini added. "One kid is affecting 23 other kids."
Cheryl Jung, a local advocate for children with special needs, argues schools aren’t providing adequate resources and services when placing children with special needs into regular classrooms.
"I'm always worried if schools are providing enough support and services," Jung said. "They often throw kids in there without any support."
Schools ought to be providing additional teaching staff trained to help special-needs students, who often exhibit a deficit in social skills and problem solving, Jung said. Schools should also create behavioral plans for each child — a sort of carrot-and-stick incentive method to encourage good behavior, she said.
If a student with autism or other mental challenges doesn't receive specialized attention and resources, she or he may resort to aggressive behaviors out of frustration, Jung said.
"There's a shortage in trained teachers and support staff," she said. "If behavior plans are appropriate and consistently implemented, it's more likely to have a better outcome."
The School District would not release the boy's identity or that of his parents because of student privacy laws. Attempts to independently contact the boy's parents were unsuccessful.
School District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said the principal at Conners and district staff worked with the parents of both students to come up with a solution.
However, the district would not share that solution, again because of student privacy laws, Fulkerson said, adding there were supports given to the child.
During a meeting toward the end of the school year, district officials "implied" to the Soncini family that the boy was transferred out of their daughter's classroom. It's uncertain how much of a role the threat of a restraining order had on the district's decision and whether a transfer would become the norm in the future.
"After the meeting (in late May), it's been expressed that (the restraining order) won't be needed," Sara Soncini said. "It seems like they've handled the situation. We're now in the process of dissolving it."
If the boy returns to the Soncini girl’s classroom next year, the district gave the Soncini family the option of switching their daughter out of his classroom, Sara Soncini said. She added that she hoped the boy would receive proper resources in a specialized classroom.
"It's unfortunate it had to come to this point," she said. "But when it comes to my kids, I take their safety seriously."