Janiyah Wright didn’t find out an assault report was filed with the police against her 7-year-old son until days later, when she got a call from the youth court. Grayson hadn’t known it either.
He had an incident on March 10 at the Taylorsville Attendance Center — he said he got frustrated when other students in his general education class received candy for finishing a test and he did not. Grayson has diagnosed disabilities and said he took his test in the special education classroom. According to the police report, he took another student’s candy and was not able to calm himself down when the principal came to the room to intervene. In the hallway, he ripped decorations and student work off the wall and kicked multiple staff members, which resulted in the school calling the police to file an assault charge.
When Wright arrived at the school, she did not see any police presence, just the principal sweeping up torn paper and Grayson crying in the office. She said her son later told her he saw the police talking to school staff and other students, but did not understand why the officers were there. A youth counselor with the court told Wright the following Monday when he called that the court had instructed the police not to take Grayson to a detention center because of his age.
When she explained the situation to him that night, Wright said Grayson started crying and sweating because he was worried the police were coming to get him from their house. Now he is nervous around the school resource officer, something he is working on with his therapist.
“He’s seven, why did it go to this?” she said. “Now we’re going to have him afraid of police at seven? And it’s all because of him having a disability that he sometimes needs help with?”
Despite doing well academically, Grayson has regularly been disciplined at school for behavior problems, which his mother says are a result of the school not providing adequate services for his disabilities. She’s fought for him to have access to individual support in the classroom, and even brought in outside advocates to help, but Wright is considering leaving the school altogether because of the challenges she and her son have faced. Advocates say these issues are common across the state and country; research links barriers in accessing services to the quality of parent relationships with school personnel.
School district officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Grayson, now 8, recently finished second grade, where he earned awards for his high scores on math and reading assessments. He was diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder at age 3 and has been receiving mental health treatment since. When he started kindergarten, he was also diagnosed with autism.
Wright said her son started getting regularly suspended at the end of first grade. Discipline reports from the school describe incidents where he was “defiant” by yelling, throwing objects, or hitting other people. This year, records from the school show Grayson was removed from his general education classroom 29 times over the course of about 75% of the school year. It’s unclear how the school is defining removals in this count, which can include out-of-school suspension, in-school suspension, being sent home early for the day, or being sent to the special education classroom as a form of discipline.
Federal data shows nationally, students with disabilities are suspended at a higher rate than their nondisabled peers, a pattern that is exacerbated by race. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year with available data, Black students with disabilities made up 2.3% of all students in the U.S. but accounted for 6.2% of all students receiving in-school suspensions and 8.8% of all students with out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
In Mississippi, students with disabilities are also suspended at higher rates than their nondisabled peers, according to the same 2017-18 federal data set, but those gaps are smaller than in comparable national figures. The national pattern of Black students with disabilities being suspended at a higher rate also holds true in Mississippi.
Researchers have also noted that among students with disabilities, Black students lose roughly three times as many instructional days because of discipline as their white counterparts.
In the first two weeks of second grade, Grayson had an incident where he tore his papers and pushed over his desk, which landed on a teacher’s finger. He was suspended for three days. When he returned, Wright went to the office to talk about the incident and said she was met with unexpected proposals to completely rework his individualized education plan, or IEP.
“I drop him off, say ‘Grayson, have a good day,’ and then all of a sudden I’m in the middle of an IEP meeting,” Wright said. “Usually, with the IEP meetings, you let the parent know ahead of time.”
Per Mississippi Department of Education policy, schools are required to provide advance notice of IEP meetings to parents.
Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to learn alongside nondisabled students to the maximum extent possible. Students with disabilities receive accommodations or services through their individualized education plan, which parents and school personnel create together. The plan also sets annual goals for the student. If the student is having trouble meeting those goals, the team that created the plan is supposed to reconvene and determine what other supports are necessary.
Joy Hogge, executive director of Families as Allies, a Mississippi nonprofit that advocates for kids with behavioral health challenges, said there are numerous reasons why districts can struggle to meet students’ federally protected needs. These include confusion about the law, a lack of understanding about disabilities, prejudices against students with disabilities, and a lack of resources. She said that while it is not acceptable, districts are stretched very thin and may “let go” of obligations in this area “because it’s one of the hardest for them.”
After the incident in August where he pushed over his desk, school officials proposed removing Grayson from the classroom setting almost entirely according to recordings of meetings and related paperwork. The school suggested having him participate in class virtually, coming to the school once or twice a week to receive behavioral services and work through questions on his coursework. A decision was not reached in the initial meeting; Wright said she felt uncomfortable with such significant changes to his special education plan so early in the school year when the school had barely had a chance to implement the current plan.
“That’s when I started getting my advocate involved, because I sat in the parking lot, having just started a new job, just crying, (thinking) ‘Why is this happening?’” she said.
Wright connected with Leslie LaVergne, of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Institute for Disability Studies, a few weeks later in early September to help her navigate the process. LaVergne pointed out in meetings that these new proposals violated Grayson’s rights by not first exhausting options to have him learn alongside his peers without disabilities and asked for better monitoring of Grayson’s progress toward his goals to understand whether the current strategies were effective.
Wright also filed a complaint with the Mississippi Department of Education against the school district after its August proposal to remove him from the classroom setting. The district reached out to Wright later about completing paperwork to withdraw the complaint, according to text messages, something Wright said came as a surprise to her. The complaint was resolved in mediation months later.
Hogge, of Families as Allies, said her organization does not encourage families to withdraw complaints or agree to mediation, since, in their experience, conditions will often return to what they were before the complaint was filed.
“When families file formal state complaints, they often face tremendous pressure from districts to withdraw them or agree to mediation,” she said. “I think that tells us right there that districts are not wanting to go through what it would take to make the changes to get in compliance.”
After an updated evaluation by a behavioral specialist, Wright and the school reached an agreement at the end of September on new strategies to help Grayson manage his behavior. Despite this, his mom said conditions with the school did not improve as she would have hoped.
“From there it was hostility, it was like a vendetta, just because I brought somebody with me,” Wright said.
She described a runaround throughout the rest of the fall regarding the services that were being delivered. In some meetings, they had conversations about how Grayson was progressing in a certain type of therapy, but Wright said the school told her in a later meeting that the group providing this care was primarily coming to train teachers, not work with Grayson himself. He was also suspended more times throughout the fall, according to Wright’s records.
At the end of November, the school called Wright to tell her Grayson was suicidal and she needed to come pick him up, according to a notice Wright signed. When he was evaluated by Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services later that day, the evaluator said he could return to school and continue his outpatient mental health treatment.
Wright requested additional meetings to rework the special education plan because Grayson was still getting in trouble for behavior problems. The document was ultimately revised multiple times over the course of the school year.
Grayson’s family describes him as shy, smart, and very observant. His grandma Deborah Wright, who lives next door, emphasized that he is very perceptive of tone. She said when people approach him from a place of love or care, they get a different response than a tone that makes him feel like he’s in trouble.
Janiyah Wright expressed frustration that, in her view, school employees have not worked to build relationships with Grayson, leading to some of the incidents that have occurred.
“Something has to change because I’m not seeing this behavior at home, when he goes off with other people they’re not seeing this behavior, we go to the park, he plays with other kids, they’re not seeing this,” said Janiyah Wright. “This is happening at school. I just want y’all to build a rapport with my child, make a connection with him so that he can be able to come to you in those times of a meltdown or a tantrum.”
She said pushback from the school increased toward the end of the school year, starting with the police incident in March. In the police report, unidentified staff members said Grayson needs help they can’t provide and called Wright “uncooperative” in his care. When she tried to bring the incident up at the next IEP meeting, she said the principal declined to discuss it.
“Why can’t we discuss that when we’re supposed to be here as an IEP committee for this kid?” she said. “That alone tells me you’re not here for my child.”
Wright said the meeting was otherwise positive. Grayson’s special education team agreed to have a registered behavior technician join him in the classroom for the remainder of the school year.
The feeling was short-lived. Wright said she received a phone call from the youth court the next week where she was told the principal wanted to proceed with the assault charges, something the court said they couldn’t do because Grayson has disabilities.
Wright, who also brought in Disability Rights Mississippi, received a notice in mid-April that both of the advocates she was working with were banned from the Taylorsville Attendance Center. The letter cited “bullying, disrespect, aggression, and unprofessionalism” at the most recent special education team meeting as the reason. A recording of the meeting showed it was tense at points.
LaVergne, the advocate from the University of Southern Mississippi, declined to comment on the situation as it is “ongoing.”
Jane Walton, communications director for Disability Rights Mississippi, said their organization has never heard of advocates being banned before and the organization has filed a complaint with the Mississippi Department of Education to challenge the decision.
“While I can’t speak to the situation of this particular student, I think it gives a lot of insight into the struggles that parents and students with disabilities generally face trying to get the support that they need,” Walton said.
To Wright, this move felt like the school didn’t care about what was in the best interest of her child since they were unwilling to listen to the experts in this field.
Despite these events, Grayson said his experience at the end of the school year was positive. Wright attributed this to the presence of the behavior technician in the classroom with him, something she said she’d been requesting for a while and was glad to see implemented.
In the most recent special education team meeting, the tech pointed out that tone is a trigger for Grayson’s behaviors, echoing what Wright and her family already told the school about Grayson. She wishes this service could have been made available sooner.
“If the school was willing to obtain knowledge on a professional level, like my advocates were trying to provide, I just feel like a lot of the incidents could have been avoided,” she said.
After the year they’ve had, Wright is looking to move.
It feels like something she has to do, even though it would likely mean moving away from the support system of her family. Grayson has told her he thinks a new school would be better. She’s been looking for new jobs and inquiring about selling her house.
Despite this, she said she doesn’t want the school to think it was successful in pushing her out because she’s still concerned about other children with disabilities in the community.
“Every time I go (to the school), I’m not just fighting for my child,” Wright said. “I don’t want to be in the school district anymore. I would like to move, but in regard to the kids that are still having to live in Smith County, I feel like there should be a change.”