A mother is fighting D.C. Public Schools to protect her son with autism. She believes the 12-year-old has been repeatedly bullied and abused. Now, instead of school being a safe happy place, it's a nightmare.
Savian Street spent a week in the hospital, his face swollen and bruised. He was suffering from Bell's palsy, which causes partial paralysis after being hit in the head with a basketball in school. The hit was so hard, it knocked him to the ground.
"Savian was coming home with bruises,” his mother Yvette Street said. “He was dirty. Occasionally, he came home with a puffy lip. He couldn't really verbalize what happened."
Savian was diagnosed with autism in the third grade. He speaks with only limited words. But his mom could see for herself what was happening, first at Garrison Elementary School and then MacFarland Middle School.
She has photos over the past three years of scratches, bruises and fingerprint marks she said came from a teacher squeezing his arm too tight. There's evidence a bus aide allegedly stole his lunch and called him derogatory names. And he had three teeth knocked out.
"He got off the bus once and spit his tooth out in his hand," Street recalled.
In elementary school, she said, "Savian got hit in the mouth one time with a bowling pin."
His mother filed a due process complaint against D.C. Public Schools. She said the school system failed to prevent other students from physically harming him, violating his right to a free and appropriate education under federal law. His mom asked for Savian to be placed in a private school for children with autism at the city's expense.
The only way for any special needs students to do that is to hire a lawyer, file a complaint and then it's up to a hearing officer to decide.
"He's been bullied and harassed by other students, and also he has come home from school with marks on him that he has said were put there by staff," said Savian's attorney Michelle Kotler.
During a three-day hearing in late February, psychologist Nicole Zeitlin, who had evaluated Savian, testified he "has been the victim of bullying." She described how Savian suffered from "ongoing emotional distress and physical assault, verbal assault in the school setting."
There was an incident in September when a student in the cafeteria "rushed toward Savian, pushing him down to the ground," according to the school report. He dislocated a finger and continues to suffer back spasms from hitting the concrete floor. That was the last time he went to school.
The psychologist and Savian's pediatrician diagnosed him with "school phobia." One day as he was driving by the middle school, Street said, "he actually tried to open the door and jump out, run while it was still moving. He's that terrified that he has to go back."
During the hearing, DCPS lawyer Tanya Chor did not refute Savian had been injured in school. Chor presented one witness on behalf of the school system, who is an autism coordinator. The witness testified the school system could address Savian's needs.
Yet evidence presented in the case shows a history of other issues. A letter from the school system showed his fourth grade teacher was not properly certified. A classmate of Savian's in elementary school in the same autism program also filed a complaint and won. The hearing officer in that case ruled against the school system, finding evidence the teacher hit the student and the child suffered "significant injuries at the hands of other students." Those allegations were almost identical to Savian's case.
"There seems to be an effort to not fully address the underlying problems and to sweep things under the rug if you will," Kotler said.
School officials would not comment on Savian's case, but said the ruling speaks for itself. The hearing officer sided with DCPS, denying the mom's request for a private school. According to the decision, Savian's lawyer failed to challenge his individual education plan (IEP), which determines school placement. The hearing officer, even when presented with the pictures and medical records, found no evidence of abuse or bullying and did not find the testimony of Savian's pediatrician and psychologist about his school phobia credible.
"This is about an actual person, this is my son, whom I love very much," Street said disappointed with the outcome.
Savian was granted limited home instruction while out of school. His mom is appealing the case.
"I think it's gone on long enough," she said with exasperation.
Street believes her son is not the only child with autism suffering in D.C. schools and hopes by speaking out, others will step forward.
The school system reported Savian's mom to Child and Family Services because of his prolonged absences from school. The case has since been closed. But that wasn't all.
DCPS also sought criminal truancy charges against her. She appeared in court Wednesday. After reviewing Savian's medical documents and notices Street provided to the school, a D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed all the charges.