Kindergartner Christopher Martinez’s Valentine’s Day party at Herk Bouris Elementary School was supposed to be a fun day with his classmates. The six-year-old went shopping with his mom, handpicked a box of Angry Birds cards to pass out to his friends, along with treats. However, on Feb. 12, the day before the party, Christopher received a school suspension for having an autism-related breakdown in class.
The Martinez family is upset saying their child’s needs are not being met and their concerns are not being addressed properly by the Menifee Unified School District.
His father, Clifford Martinez, reported that when he came to school at the end of the day to pick up his son he found him sitting in the office. “We were told Christopher had a meltdown in class and stripped off all his clothes in front of the other students,” said Perez. “We were told he was suspended and couldn’t attend the party the next day.”
“Our child should not have been suspended. It is common for a child with autism to react like our son did and strip off his clothes,” said Perez, who said she does not condone her child’s meltdowns but it is not the same as misbehaving from a normal child.
Perez said she has tried to get school officials to understand her child’s autism needs are not being met.
“The district will not comment based on specific students but we follow the education code,” said Betti Cadmus, public information officer for the Menifee Unified School District. “We respond to each individual situation in accordance to guidelines and procedures stated in education code. If necessary, we develop and implement individual student safety plans and if needed, we can revise the individualized education plans.”
Christopher has had other autism-related outbursts since he started kindergarten according to Perez. In December, his class was practicing for a Christmas play when during practice he got upset with a teacher and lashed out.
“I am worried about my son hurting another child. I don’t even know if other parents know my son has autism, that he isn’t just misbehaving,” said Perez, who says she sees the looks other parents give her when on campus or at least she feels she is getting “looks.”
Educationally, Christopher’s parents said his grades are great but his special needs are not being met.
“His teacher told me she doesn’t know how to calm my son down when he starts to get upset. She told us she doesn’t have enough help to handle him,” said Perez.
Perez said she is not upset with the teacher. She knows that having 31 students in kindergarten is a lot and throwing in a child with autism just makes the situation harder.
“The district will not comment on specific children, teachers, or what has been allegedly discussed. All teachers have classroom management and behavioral training. Specialists are available at every site who [have] knowledge about autism. Resources are available to all staff to support every child,” said Cadmus.
Christopher’s family said they have tried to get him into the Chester W. Morrison Elementary School that has a program for autism children and it is closer to their home as well.
“We can walk to Chester W. Morrison but we are told we have to do a district transfer even though it is two blocks from our home and the school said our son first has to qualify. I am almost ready to take him out of the school district,” said Perez.
Priscilla Hoaglin, the aunt of Christopher who lives with the Martinez family, said the Valentine’s Day suspension was the last straw for her and that is why she reached out to the media to share her sister’s story.
“I see her frustration when she comes back from school. I see her cry. This Valentine’s Day party my nephew missed out on was the icing on the cake,” said Hoaglin.
“I feel like I am not being heard,” said Perez. “The school he is at now doesn’t have a program for autism and the school said they would try to get him into one but first they needed to get him enrolled.”
“We have a full range and continuum of programs available. Placement is determined based on student individualized needs,” said Cadmus.
After this month’s suspension, the school did decide to place an aid in the classroom to work directly with Christopher. Perez said she is happy he will have an aid but not happy it took multiple outbursts and a suspension to prove he needed an aid.
Children with autism are also known to escape or run from their safe surroundings, said Perez. Earlier this school year Christopher snuck out of his classroom. Perez said he went through two doors that were supposed to be locked and made it out as far as the sidewalk before school staff found him.
“Once again no one from the school called me to let me know my child tried to run away,” said Perez, who was only told about the incident when she came to pick up her son.
“Generally, if we have a child who elopes from class, we have a discussion about how best to support the student and a safety plan will be established,” said Cadmus. “To ensure environmental safety, strategies will be put in place such as having the student seated away from the exit door and to be placed closer to where the teacher is. In addition, the teacher or other staff members will stand between the child and exit door if they are attempting to leave the room.”
Perez said she and her family have turned to the media for help because she has found there is a shortage of help in her Menifee community for children with autism and she wants other parents to know they are not alone.
According to Cadmus, out of the 9,329 students in the Menifee School District, there are currently 1,085 students receiving special educational support services including support for children with autism.
“You can’t see autism. He looks like a normal child and people don’t understand autism,” said Hoaglin.