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Parents protest autism program in Harford public schools

Organized by Ed Spangler and his wife, whose son, Jacob, 9, has autism, the protest was in response to a report issued recently that outlines deficiencies in Harford's program and, specifically, problems at Hickory Elementary School with mistreatment of some of the students, as reported in The Baltimore Sun two weeks ago.

Logan Dutton is only 5 years old and in kindergarten at Forest Lakes Elementary, so he's new to the public school system, but already his mother can see he's beginning to fall through the cracks.

Logan, who is on the Autism spectrum, and has had early intervention through the county's Infants and Toddlers program, sometimes comes home from school with half of his lunch left, his mother, Pilar Dutton said.

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He has trouble with fine motor skills, she said, and sometimes can't open the bags with a sandwich in it or take the lid off the yogurt. Yes, there are helpers in the cafeteria, Dutton said, but sometimes Logan forgets to raise his hand. And when he doesn't get help, he doesn't eat.

"The fact that the problems will get worse as he gets older, things need to change. Maybe they will by the time he gets older," Dutton said standing outside the Harford County Public Schools headquarters on Hickory Avenue Wednesday afternoon.

She and a group of other parents, who brought their children with them, are hoping to draw attention to the problems with the autism program in Harford County Public Schools.

Organized by Ed Spangler and his wife, whose son, Jacob, 9, has autism, the protest was in response to a report issued recently that outlines deficiencies in Harford's program and, specifically, problems at Hickory Elementary School with mistreatment of some of the students, as reported in The Baltimore Sun two weeks ago.

Lawyers with the Maryland Disability Law Center said last year that nine students in one class at Hickory suffered "pervasive and long-standing neglect" and that teachers and support staff used "aversive behavior intervention techniques."

According to the report of the Maryland Disability Law Center, school system officials agreed to institute new training for staff who work with students with autism, improve procedures for developing and auditing students' individualized education plans and evaluating their progress and to provide unspecified "compensatory services" to the nine affected Hickory students. HCPS also agreed to improve how it communicates with parents of students with autism and to make other programmatic changes.

But that's not enough, parents at the protest said.

One of the biggest problems, Hilary Jenkins-Spangler, Jacob's mother, said is that the school system doesn't have programs for high-functioning students with autism.

Her son was at Youth's Benefit, where the classroom was too noisy.

"When that happens, he just checks out," Jenkins-Spangler said.

He was then placed in a classroom at Red Pump, which she said was more for students with behavioral issues, not autism. After observing the class for 3 1/2 hours Friday and not liking what she saw, she pulled her son out of school and he hasn't been back.

"I'm not worried about physical abuse, but emotional neglect," she said. "He is emotionally and socially isolated and academically not getting what he needs. They don't have the training to deal with these kids and teachers have no authority."

Children with autism can grow up to be key members of society, but not always unless they get the support they need when they're young.

"If he gets the support services he needs, he could grow up to be an engineer, then he will be a functioning adult with the dignity of holding a job," Jenkins-Spangler said. It not, he could have to be supported by the state for the rest of his life. "That seems incredibly short-sighted."

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Jacob's god-father, Oscar Alm, who was at the protest, said his godson is being "abused by the school system."

"He can go to a private school and he improves. I don't understand that, why they can't duplicate what a private school does," Alm said. "How hard can that be? If you really want to do it, you can do it."

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