ELLENVILLE – If you had a child who was having emotional issues, you would probably do something similar to what Donald and Sandra Oglesby did: You would seek out the best available help for this child. You would employ the best mental health professionals at your disposal as part of a larger effort to bring the child into emotional balance. You would also expect the public school system, an institution with policies and procedures in place for dealing with troubled kids, to do everything possible to work with you in order to facilitate the child's recovery.
But, according to the Oglesbys, this isn't what the Ellenville Central School District did. Instead, the couple alleges that the school resisted taking the steps necessary to classify two of their children as "special needs," and after the Oglesbys made complaints about this, the school filed a report with Child Protective Services (CPS) alleging parental abuse, a charge that was subsequently investigated and determined to be without merit.
Now the couple is suing members of the Ellenville Central School District (ECSD) in federal court, alleging a conspiracy involving retaliation against those parents who express concern about the way the district handles children with emotional problems.
The nightmare began, according to the Oglesbys, back in August of 2002, when they planned to adopt a group of four siblings from Texas — two boys and twin girls. The children, apparently, had been abused by their biological mother as well as by the foster parents with whom they had subsequently been placed. But the Oglesbys knew none of this, they claim, as Social Services in Texas had "swept this information under the rug."
An Explanation of
Section 504 Legislation
Section 504 is a section within the 1973 US Rehabilitation Act that prohibited discrimination in federal programs and programs receiving federal financial assistance - such as education.
This legislation prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals, including school children. A disabled child is therefore entitled to equal access to education.
School districts are required to provide "free appropriate public education" to each student with a disability within the school district's jurisdiction. A "free appropriate public education" may include special education with special services.
To qualify under Section 504, a student must be determined to have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Within school systems, there are committees and staff whose job it is to determine whether or not a student is disabled, and would qualify under Section 504.
"We thought we were going to be one big happy family," Sandra Oglesby says.
Issues began to surface shortly after the children arrived on the east coast, when the boys began exhibiting abnormal behavior of a sexual nature. It was at this time that the Oglesbys took the boys to New York-Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH) in White Plains, New York, one of the top psychiatric care centers in the country. After undergoing counseling, the doctors at NYPH determined that the boys, who were then aged eight and six, had been sexually abused and that they also were engaging in incestuous relationships with the twin girls. NYPH doctors recommended that the male siblings be separated from the twin girls and that the boys should also be placed in separate homes. The good news, according to the Oglesbys, is that the boys, despite their problems, have since found adoptive parents. The Oglesbys remained committed to raising the twin girls, however.
And it was when the girls (hereafter referred to as G1 and G2) entered kindergarten that their problems began to emerge. According to the Oglesbys, G1's teacher began noticing abnormal behavior in the girl. They say the teacher apparently thought that G1 was getting physically "too close" to the other children. To combat this, the Oglesbys allege, Margaret Tully, the school counselor, placed a masking-tape border on the child's desk and around G1's seat in the classroom, commanding her not to cross over the lines.
The first inkling of problems came when G1 told Sandra, "Mommy, I'm always in trouble at school." It was then that the Oglesbys found out about the methods Tully had been employing in order to deal with G1's behavior. By then this behavior included the child rubbing herself on a carpet the children would sit on during "story time." Apparently, the tactile nature of the carpet aroused her. To combat this, Tully had the girl sit on a chair during "story time," a punishment which, the Oglesbys feel, separated her from classmates and ostracized her.
What makes matters worse, the Oglesbys say, is that they were never notified of these problems. Donald would ask the teachers if everything was okay when he walked his daughters into school. Given the history of abuse in the girls' previous family life, Donald remained sensitive to the potential that they may exhibit problem-behavior.
"I would ask them, 'Is there anything I need to know?'" Donald says.
Each day the response he received was that there was "no problem." The Oglesbys contend that the school was negligent in its failure to inform them about the behavior G1 was exhibiting, especially given the fact that the previous history of abuse was part of the twins' school records.
The next few years went by with what Sandra characterized as a couple of "minor incidents." Then, during Thanksgiving week in 2005, G1's behavior started to regress. She was discovered lying in the hallway of the Oglesby home, bloody after having mutilated herself with a sharp object. Like her brothers several years earlier, she was taken to NYPH, where she remained under care for four weeks. During this four-week period, the Oglesbys claim they were in almost daily contact with Ellenville School Superintendent Lisa Wiles because the school was required to have a tutor assigned to the girl. The Oglesbys say that it took nearly four full weeks of wrangling before the school relented and provided a tutor.
"The day she got tutoring was three days before she was discharged," Sandra says.
The doctors at NYPH, according to the Oglesbys, had put together a list of recommendations for G1's care going forward. Most important of these, she would need to be monitored closely during bathroom breaks in order to prevent new episodes of self-mutilation. The Oglesbys say that G1 was at that time instructed to use the nurse's bathroom, though for part of this time she was apparently free to roam the halls on her way to and from the facility (NYPH, according to the Oglesbys, strongly recommended that she be provided an escort).
"For four months this occurred," Sandra says. "They did give her a monitor towards the end [of the period in question]."
But the child's behavior continued to regress, despite the fact that measures were being taken to ensure her safety. Something, apparently, was causing this regression. As it turns out, G1 was able to abuse herself on a retractable metal spigot in the nurse's bathroom designed to clean out bedpans. It was only after G1 told Sandra that there was something in the nurse's bathroom that was making her unsafe that the existence of this spigot was discovered by the Oglesbys. At this point, the Oglesbys say, rather than find a different, safer bathroom facility for the girl to use, the school instead tied up the retractable spigot with a leotard and later covered it with a three inch, fuzzy black, beaked bird. G1 apparently was able to untie this leotard and continue the harmful behavior. According to the Oglesbys, when school psychologist Theresa Sheeley was asked to help G1 remain safe during bathroom breaks and walk her to another bathroom, no assistance was given.
Over the next few months the Oglesbys continued to make complaints regarding the school's attitude regarding G1's care, ultimately demanding what is known as "Section 504 or a CSE Meeting," a formal procedure under the Americans with Disabilities Act and education law that would classify the girls as "special needs," thereby making available a battery of resources and needed services (see sidebar). The meeting was not forthcoming or timely, however.
Then, according to the Oglesbys, in late March, 2006, the school made a conference call to its attorneys, apparently to discuss the school's strategy for dealing with their repeated requests. But, according to the parents, as learned through recent depositions, the notes taken by the attorney show that those school employees who attended the conference call expressed concern that the Oglesbys were the ones abusing the girls. The Oglesbys say that the notes indicate that the school district thought the Oglesbys had four foster children — which is not true; two of the Oglesbys' children are adopted, and the third is biological — and that, according to the district's depositions, someone from Ulster County Mental Health had suggested that Sandra Oglesby suffered from a mental condition known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, whereby a person harms another — very often a parent harming his or her child — in order to gain attention. What is damning about these notes, according to the Oglesbys, is that approximately four weeks elapsed before someone from the district actually made the necessary call to Child Protective Services (CPS). The Oglesbys would like to know why, if the school thought that the children were in harm's way, so much time was allowed to elapse before making this call. This lapse is especially puzzling given that calls can be made to CPS anonymously in order to prevent retaliation against the person doing the reporting.
"If this was a serious case, and [the five school officials] really thought these children were being sexually abused, wouldn't you think they would call [CPS] immediately?" Sandra says. "They waited 27 days to make the call."
The subsequent investigation by CPS of the Oglesbys turned up no evidence of abuse, and, in fact, found that the Oglesbys had hired a battery of professionals who were working on the case, and ultimately praised the couple for being good parents. The four-week gap, the parents allege, would appear to back up the Oglesbys' claim that the school was attempting to retaliate against them for demanding that the school provide the necessary resources for dealing with an emotionally disturbed child, resources that are expensive for school districts to provide, but are nevertheless mandated by law. The Oglesbys feel that the district's foot-dragging may have something to do with a "pattern in practice" of cutting corners in order to save resources.
Randolph Bleiwas, a Rockland County therapist who initially worked with the two adopted boys, and who subsequently worked with the twin girls, says that he is baffled by the district's apparent reluctance to provide the services that were necessary for the children to reintegrate into the regular student body.
"I was shocked and horrified," Bleiwas says of the incident regarding the spigot in the nurse's bathroom. "Were they paying attention?"
Bleiwas feels that the district appeared to lack understanding regarding the medical history of the two girls, and that it kept changing the personnel who attended the CSE meetings to classify the girls as "special needs." This had the effect of continually disrupting the network of "safe" people to whom the children could turn in the event of a crisis.
"We want a network of people who are good clinicians, or good guidance counselors…that can help reduce [the girls'] anxiety," Bleiwas says in regard to the high rate of turnover on the committee. The district, in fact, went through a total of five different committee chairs over the period in question, according to the Oglesbys.
Now the Oglesbys want their day in court. They have filed a federal civil rights case, which is being handled by Jonathan Lovett, a prominent attorney in Westchester County. The couple, who is paying these attorneys' fees out of pocket, will be seeking punitive damages from those named in the suit. They are also in the process of considering filing a criminal complaint against the individuals involved, and in the near future will be discussing the matter with the United States Attorney for this region.
The couple, on advice of NYPH and other clinicians, pulled the girls out of the school; and they have little choice but to use the limited educational resources — three hours per day of home tutoring — being provided and paid for by the district to continue the girls' education. Despite all of this, the Oglesbys remain committed to educating the girls in public school. They simply want to ensure that there is a safe, caring environment for the girls when their clinical team attempts to transition them back to the regular school population.