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A boy's desk placed over a toilet raises discrimination concerns

A middle school in Washington state recently made headlines for setting up a school restroom as a learning environment for a student with special needs. The 11-year-old’s mother asked the school to provide her son, who has autism, a quiet place to do his schoolwork. The school responded by putting a desk over a toilet and laying a camping mat on the bathroom floor for naps.

Media reports pointed out how traumatizing this was for the boy, and how this could have had severe effects on his health. In addition to having autism, the boy has an autoimmune disorder called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcus (PANDAS). This means that exposure to strep bacteria can trigger debilitating reactions, such as intense anxiety, severe mood swings, obsessive compulsive-like issues and/or tics.

The school cited space limitations as the reason for this placement. The boy’s mother allegedly requested that the school allow her son to work in the library, instead. It is unclear why the school declined this alternative.

Students have rights regarding their public education

Situations like what this boy experienced are often illegal. Failing to accommodate or provide access for someone with a disability can be a form of discrimination.

In California and throughout the United States, children with disabilities have the legal right to receive a free and appropriate public education. An appropriate education is one designed to meet the child’s individual needs to the same extent the school meets the needs of its other students.

In turn, a child who has disabilities should be taught alongside typical students as much as possible but can be taught in separate classrooms for part or all of the school day if that is better for the child. However, the quality of services must be equal for disabled and non-disabled students, and the facilities must be comparable.

Schools can be held accountable for inappropriate actions

Public schools have responsibilities to their students. When a school does not meet its obligations, parents are often able to hold the school accountable. However, the best response depends on the specific situation.

In the situation involving the middle school in Washington, the child’s parents asked the school district to investigate the occurrence as a civil rights issue in relation to non-discrimination policies. They also asked the district to investigate the teacher’s actions as a potential human resources issue. They may also request an independent educational evaluation to see how the situation affected their son.

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