Mom upset with special needs teacher's methods in Maricopa classroom

MARICOPA, AZ - An Arizona mother is calling for a Maricopa teacher to be fired after a new system was implemented in her autistic son's self-contained special needs classroom.

"He was telling me... that he had to sit on the floor all day," said his mother Janet Hook. "And I'm like, 'Okay, why would you have to sit on the floor all day?'"

Her 12-year-old son attends Desert Wind Middle School.

He told her that his desk, pencils and paper were all taken away. He had to have good behavior in order to earn marbles. From there, he could turn in marbles for his school supplies again.

Hook had trouble believing what her son was telling her because, she sai, it was so unbelievable. But, she saw an email from her son's teacher, which she then sent to ABC15.

The teacher, writing in part, "As a whole group, students will be earning chairs and desks back through positive classroom behavior," going on to say that "...when students earn 10 marbles, they will earn a full sheet of paper. When students earn 20 marbles, they will earn #2 pencils and erasers. When students earn 30 marbles, they will earn clipboards. When students earn 40 marbles, they will earn desks and chairs."

Hook said she was appalled and called up the teacher, who she said told her that a couple of students were messing with the desks and were trying to throw them in class. That is why the teacher thought a blanket system like this would help.

"And we're like, 'Oh... who did you talk to? Because I can guarantee you didn't talk to a lawyer,'" Hook said. "Because this is illegal."

According to the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Hook is correct.

After ABC15 showed the email to the group, they said they saw multiple red flags for violations of federal law.

"Schools are required to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, which necessarily includes access to the tools for learning, like a desk, chair, paper, pencil, and erasers," wrote Staff Attorney Sarah Kader with the ACDL.

Another violation Kader noticed was the incentive overall. She said that schools are not allowed to provide incentives, even something like a field trip or classroom jobs, when it does not require non-disabled students to do the same.

"Students with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment and with non-disabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, based on their individual needs," Kader wrote.

ABC15 contacted the Maricopa Unified School District about these claims. They sent us a statement saying:

After Fall Break, the staff at Desert Wind Middle School tried a new strategy in the Self-Contained Special Education classroom to improve student safety. The new strategy included removing the desks and chairs. This strategy was tried for 3-4 days and then the desks and chairs were returned to the classroom. Students were given all other instructional materials they needed during that 3-4 day period.

ABC15 pushed for more answers on whether or not they were aware of the potential legal implications.

The district responded by saying, "The District does not believe that the strategy that was briefly tried was unlawful. If any parents of students in the class have questions or concerns, they are welcome to contact... the Desert Wind Middle School administration."

Our crew still wanted more specifics on what happened here. So, we went to the school and spoke with the middle school's principal, June Celaya. She did not want to do an on-camera interview but sat down with reporter Megan Thompson.

She said individual desks and chairs were taken away and most students were given a taped area on the floor to work.

However, Celaya said the email written by her teacher was misleading in explaining the marble method as there were still longer tables for students to work at if necessary; just not individual ones. She also said that students always had pencils and paper, despite it saying otherwise in the email.

Celaya explained that it was her understanding that students could earn more paper and more pencils by turning in the "good behavior" marbles.

Celaya said she is unaware of it being a violation of federal law. She said that the district knew about the new system and approved it.

But Hook did decide to pull her child from the school as she did not like the system. She does not think the teacher should be working in the district if she does not understand the laws granted to students with disabilities.

"I don't think you should be educating any children if you think that's acceptable. It's not acceptable."

Hook wants an apology to the students and she wants to see the teacher fired.

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