Mom says Cobb middle school didn’t inform her felony charges pressed against autistic son

The logo on front of a Cobb County School District facilityCobb County School District sign (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

By Rebecca Gaunt

A 12-year-old student at Hightower Trail Middle School in Cobb County received an administrative suspension in January. His parents thought the matter had been handled. A week later, his father received a phone call from Cobb juvenile court informing him his son was facing a felony charge for making terroristic threats.

“We still can’t wrap our heads around it. He has a behavior intervention plan and behavior number two is exactly what he did,” his mother, Tovah Ringland, told the Courier.

The behavior that got him in trouble on this particular occasion is called scripting or delayed echolalia. According to the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake, scripting is “the repetition of words, phrases, intonation, or sounds of the speech of others, sometimes taken from movies, but also sometimes taken from other sources such as favorite books or something someone else has said.”

In this particular case, a video game provided the source material. Jadon and his older brother had been playing “Red Dead,” a popular series of Western adventure video games. One of the weapons available to players is the “fire bottle,” an incendiary device.

According to the incident report filed by the teacher, Jadon became disruptive during science, yelling, “I will burn all the teachers. I will burn this school down and all the students in this class. One by one, I will make bottles. It is easy. I will put in a glass bottle gas and a piece of cloth and burn them. I will burn you.”

The report also says that after the outburst he was taken to the sensory room for 20 minutes, where he said, “‘I sometimes like to get in trouble at school.’ I asked why and he responded, ‘so I get out and go home to play in my computer all day.’” He returned to class at 11:46 and went to get lunch.

The incident at Hightower Trail occurred in a self-contained classroom for autism and intellectual disabilities. According to Ringland, there were six students enrolled for in-person learning and one virtual student. The class had one special education teacher and one paraprofessional. Ringland’s requests for a one-to-one support staff member for her son, who requires close supervision at all times, including in the bathroom, was denied by the county.

The fire bottle incident occurred on Friday, Jan. 29. Ringland got a message from Hightower Trail’s principal requesting to meet the following Tuesday. Jadon attended school as usual Monday. It wasn’t until Tuesday’s virtual meeting that Ringland learned what her son had said. The principal told her he had been written up and was given an administrative suspension. A copy of the incident report was provided to the Courier. Where the form asks if the incident was reported to the police, it says no.

Ringland said she shared her concerns that suspension would exacerbate Jadon’s behaviors by demonstrating he could stay home as a result, and the principal acknowledged those concerns. Ringland was told that Jadon cooled down in a time out with a school resource officer (SRO) after the incident, but since Jadon knew and liked the officers, his parents were fine with that.

Jadon was also told by his parents that he could no longer play any “Red Dead” games or watch clips online.

It wasn’t until the phone call from a court intake officer Feb. 5 that Jadon’s parents learned it had become a legal matter.

Instead of following the behavior intervention plan (BIP) when Jadon began scripting from the video game, Ringland said, the teacher called the SRO, who filed a police report.

A BIP is a formal written plan to address behaviors and provides strategies to deal with them. They are based on a functional behavioral analysis (FBA), which is typically performed by a behavioral specialist, psychologist or special education professional. A BIP typically accompanies an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and both are legally binding documents protected under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“Everywhere in his IEP, in his behavior plan, it talks about him scripting…there’s a protocol to ask him if it’s real or pretend. Instead of doing that they called the officer,” Ringland said.

Ringland is straightforward when asked about her son’s behavioral issues.

“Jadon has had a lot of behavior and we are mostly concerned with physical aggression,” she said. However, the behavioral reports and conduct grades they had been receiving in the months leading up to the incident indicated he was doing well. Documents shared with the Courier also show staff described Jadon as inquisitive and friendly.

Jadon’s mother provided the Courier with a copy of his most recent IEP from December 2020. It included parental concerns submitted by Jadon’s parents in November 2020, including the amount of instructional time he had missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The behavior reports that were coming home were overwhelmingly good, but his parents “continued to be concerned about school behavior. Since the BIP was developed there has been limited time to see if his behavior will remain under control. We want to make sure we stay on top of it. Factors for the first 14 days could be a honeymoon period, not attending a full day, adjusting meds to include Depakote, and adjusting the dosage, or additional therapy.”

His behavior plan, last revised by his school IEP team in May 2020, targets both his physical aggression and verbal disruption, including “loudly scripting (ie. a movie); cursing; making verbal threats to kill or harm others.”

After the phone call from the court on Feb. 5, Ringland informed the school via email that Jadon wouldn’t be returning until they had an IEP meeting with the education attorney they had retained to represent Jadon.

“We cannot risk him having to face the court system that may not understand autism and scripting,” she wrote to the school.

The meeting, held Feb. 10, did not go well, by Ringland’s account. She described it as hours of verbal sparring in which staff refused to discuss the BIP. She did not receive her copy of the meeting documents until Feb. 26. When it finally arrived, it did not include any notes from the meeting and was incorrectly dated Feb. 24. The amendment date was corrected and notes were added at Ringland’s request.

“It was four hours of the county’s legal representative arguing with me,” she said.

A follow up meeting on March 3 was much more productive. The county BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) attended and they discussed behavioral solutions.

On March 29, Ringland was provided with graphs based on his behavioral data. She described them as “atrocious.” They indicated increasing aggression and the decision was made to change his placement back to H.A.V.E.N. Academy at Sky View in Mableton.

Jadon had attended H.A.V.E.N. previously from first grade through fourth grade, before meeting the criteria to return to a traditional school setting. He was at Sky View for part of that time and a satellite location for the rest.

H.A.V.E.N. is part of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (GNETS) and serves students with severe emotional/behavioral disorders. It accepts students from Marietta City, Cobb and Douglas County School Systems. Though the program has faced controversy over its segregated approach, Ringland said it has been positive for Jadon.

His behavior has improved again since returning to the program. Ringland’s concern, however, is that since the goal at H.A.V.E.N. is to reintegrate the student, the family could eventually be faced with these issues all over again.

“There are some students, like my son, who don’t ever need to be in general education. If he could be in a small private school or a smaller place where he is loved, like H.A.V.E.N. for the rest of his life, that’s perfect,” she said.

Jadon has already undergone competency testing and his court date is set for August 9 in the Juvenile Court of Cobb County.

“This happened in January and we are still dealing with it,” Ringland said.

In fact, things have gotten more complicated because they just learned last month that there are also charges stemming from an incident that occurred Jan. 15. They had no idea anything had occurred on this date until they received the delinquency petition from the court in May with two separate felony counts of terroristic threats: one for the fire bottle incident on Jan. 29 and one for a terroristic threat made on Jan. 15.

The delinquency complaint is dated Feb. 1 and signed by Officer John McCraw. The complaint section lists “terroristic threats and acts,” code 16 11-37 (1)(c) with a date of Jan. 29. In the space provided at the bottom for the officer to record details of the event, the officer wrote that Jadon:

Did commit the offense of Terroristic Threats and acts, under Ga Code 16-11-37 (1)c), when he made the statement in the presence of teachers and students, that he wanted to burn and damage property, (that being Hightower Trail Middle School and the students inside the class/school), with a purpose of otherwise causing serious public inconvenience and reckless disregard of the risk of causing terror, evacuation.

This was not the first time that Jadon had made statement to commit an act of violence to or at the school. On 15 January 2021, he made a statement to the paraprofessional in the class, that he wanted to “shoot up” the school bus with the kids inside the bus. He was once again removed from the classroom environment and isolated from the remaining student body.”

Ringland said when she asked, the school told her they had no record of the incident from Jan. 15.

In the meantime, Jadon is home for the summer and said he misses school food the most. He will receive extended school year and compensatory education services from Cobb during the break and continue his private therapies. Now 13, he said he looks forward to being vaccinated so he can go to the pool. He recently tried to convince his mom to buy him a movie on YouTube” in case his future children wanted to see it.”

Ringland has addressed the Cobb County Board of Education during public comment several times since the incident about special education issues.

Ringland is speaking out because she wants more training for school resource officers and other staff who work with autism. She doesn’t think the required two-hour autism and de-escalation course for officers is enough.

“I hope other families don’t have to go through this,” she told the Courier. “We need to be able to concentrate on helping our children, not spend our efforts dealing with this nonsense. And it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

According to mom, Jadon has come a long way from when he first came home with them. Adopted from Russia when he was two years old, he was nonverbal and couldn’t stand to walk on the grass. He ate paper rather than food. But in just the past two years his family has seen a marked improvement in his behavior.

A Cobb County School District spokesperson provided the following response to questions about the incident:

District staff and Cobb School Police are familiar with the administrative suspension during which District policy and administrative process was followed. Further details about the student’s discipline record and nature of the suspension is not publicly available. District staff has also been able to confirm criminal charges were initially filed by Cobb Schools Police, additional charges were filed by the Cobb County District Attorney’s office (for an incident two weeks prior), and parental notification occurs through the legal system.”

While it is standard for the school system not to respond to questions about specific students, CCSD did not respond to questions about what kind of training Cobb Schools police officers must complete before working with autistic and intellectually disabled students, why an incident referral might note that the police were not contacted when they were, or if it is standard for a student to be allowed to remain on campus after an incident that warrants a felony police report being filed.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.

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20 Comments on "Mom says Cobb middle school didn’t inform her felony charges pressed against autistic son"

  1. Janis Atkinson | June 16, 2021 at 2:02 pm | Reply

    I had the police come to my home day after Thanksgiving break because my 8 yr old granddaughter smelled like pee. She has spina bifidia wears a diaper. They never told me of a problem they were having they just called Douglad County Sherriff . To get me free services. There is nothing you can do. I even got a lawyer the Iep system is failing all our children. The school passes the problem to the Police. No Iep is ever looked at or used on our children . The police just apologize and do there job. The school is not concerned what they have done to the child.

  2. This is absolutely horrifying. I can’t imagine what this family must be going through. Shame on all involved. They should all be fired if they can’t handle their responsibilities properly.

    • Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 1:39 pm | Reply

      I feel for the kid. Lived experience makes me wary of non-autistic parents of autistic kids, especially ones with behavior issues.

      Cobb county sped is terrible and has been for years. I have firsthand experience with sped at both Hightower and H.A.V.E.N. I’m not young but from the sounds of it nothing has changed from when I was a kid, it’s still the same nonsense of throwing the book at kids for minor stuff and getting them started in the school to prison pipeline ASAP.

      When I was in 4th grade they called the cops on a kid an led him away in handcuff for having a fit. I didnt realize how messed up it was until adulthood because at the time I was already normalized to that treatment.

      Most BD kids have been through horrible things and are acting up as a result, because the brains of children can’t cope like adults can. Yet the system just blames and punishes these kids while ignoring or even enabling their abusers. It’s horrible and very few people are aware of it.

  3. B i p need to be followed and are extremely effective when it’s not followed these kind of situations arrived yes it takes much more training to understand and be aware of these students behavior I’m a former behavior disorder teacher of 40 years this mother is excellent

    • Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 1:30 pm | Reply

      Behavior issues in kids are commonly caused by a toxic home environment. I’m a former BD student, so I’d say I’m more than qualified on the topic. Some abusive parents are master manipulators and can and do fool teachers and social workers. My mom did it for years, even charmed DFCS off her back many times.

      Point is any time a kid is acting up I’d take the parents with a grain of salt as well.

  4. Asarenee Givens | June 17, 2021 at 12:08 am | Reply

    The disparity of punishment in cobb county school was addressed by the federal government in 2018. My son was expelled from the Cobb County School system. With EIP in place. He answered with being a Recipient of the Donald Trump Academic Excellence Award.

  5. Just one more reason why parents should not let their kids play violent video games without monitoring. If this is the story that they’re going with, goes back to the parents.

    • Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 1:25 pm | Reply

      It has nothing to do with video games and everything to do with the fact that Cobb county sped is terrible and has been for years. I have firsthand experience.

  6. Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 1:24 pm | Reply

    Nice to see almost 20 years after I was there Hightower and H.A.V.E.N are still treating autistic kids (most of whom are abuse survivors like all BD kids) like garbage.

    I wish there was something I could do for this kid.

  7. Great article & written. Will say that the teacher & principal need to be sent re-eval of positions being worked; since can’t be done responsible. Raised 3 Special children by myself & since situations were not handled as should’ve – BIG lawsuit for CC BOE coming. LoL.

    • Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 8:33 pm | Reply

      Hopefully a lawsuit is coming but you never know. I was an autistic kid in Cobb county sped and they’re terrible. Most sped professionals are terrible people and they get away with so much crap.

      One of my old teachers, Mary Katherine Pursley (unless she remarried, which she did on roughly a yearly basis when I was her student), got fired in 2015 for putting a 2nd grader in a trash can. Of course tons of other sped teachers supported her on a FB group they made.

      People will let all kinds of child abuse and neglect slide if the kid is autistic or otherwise disabled.

  8. Linda Pallay | June 17, 2021 at 8:21 pm | Reply

    The kid is autistic. Leave him alone.

    • Local autist | June 17, 2021 at 8:36 pm | Reply

      He’s also 12. 12 year olds say all kinds of dumb edgy stuff they have no intent or ability to do. But of course they gotta get that school to prison pipeline started early (disabled and mentally ill kids are marginalized just like black and brown kids and get sucked into the school to prison pipeline the same way).

  9. robert wagner | June 17, 2021 at 11:19 pm | Reply

    There is a fine line between covering you bases and reporting incidents to the proper authorites and just passing the buck. This one both the school system and police handled wrong. Special needs students need indivudual plans not cookie cutter plans that are used for the rest of the students. And Cobb County Police are acting like the Cobb of old. I guess they didn’t make enough money during pandemic and are arresting for every little thing to get more money in the system. Thought we had progressed beyond that. Guess not.

    • Local autist | June 18, 2021 at 10:17 am | Reply

      Nah this is pretty typical behavior of both sped and cops. Even if it was a non-disabled kid this would be completely inappropriate but disabled kids are at much higher risk of this stuff. Institutionalized ableism is very real and disabled people, even children, tend to get treated like crap by the very people who are supposed to help them.

  10. Local autist | June 19, 2021 at 11:08 am | Reply

    Just saw the bit about how this poor kid was an adopted Russian orphan, holy crap no wonder he has behavior issues. Like honestly even if the kid really was throwing maltovs at people I can’t say I’d completely blame him. The abuse and neglect these poor kids go through early in life is that bad and damaging.

    I also really hate how this is framed as an issue because the mom wasnt told rather than because a 12 year old (specifically a disabled one who’s a survivor of neglect/abuse) had felony charges filed against him for something fairly minor in the first place. I also really want to hear what the kid has to say, I’m sure he’s perfectly capable of having his own opinion on the matter and expressing it.

    Really horrible situation all around, even if this was a non-disabled kid felony charges would be completely inappropriate but I also wonder if they would have been filed against a non-disabled kid.

    I hope the kid is able to see my comments, I want him to know at least one person knows almost exactly what he’s going through as an autistic kid dealing with the nonsense of those schools.

    Btw H.A.V.E.N. when I was there was basically just daycare for problem kids, kids got warehoused there when regular school got sick of them. Amongst other things they were using health textbooks from the 80s in the early to mid 00s and their solution to kids acting up was just to chase then down/restrain them and force them to copy a prescripted fake apology when they calmed down slightly or be forced to stay after school til they did it. None of it really helped the kids and I think most of them eventually just ended up dropping out, in jail, or in a psych institution. I had to fight to be able to go back to regular school, and I still ended up dropping out in senior year (at the urging of the teachers and administrators of my high no less). I doubt it’s changed much since I was there.

    I think the most I got out of H.A.V.E.N. was the fact that I was allowed pretty frequent access to the computers my first year there (this was like 2002 and my only other internet access was heavily restricted dialup at home or biking to the library and using their computers). Spent most of that time on anime forums and fansites (despite the fact that anime was something “inappropriate for a girl my age” according to one of my IEPs from the time I later re-read as an adult. I burst out laughing when I saw that bit, since I still am very much into anime as a grown woman and its hardly an interest that has any gender or age limits) and had some pretty good times as a result. The sad thing is arguing about Japanese robot cartoons at 12 with other nerds on the internet was probably more useful social skills practice and instruction than anything I was getting from H.A.V.E.N. directly (which was just worksheets that were clearly intended for very young children and getting points taken away if we were anything other than perfectly cheerful and compliant). I think that says a lot about the way these kids are treated and the quality of instruction they get at H.A.V.E.N.

  11. Amanda Price | June 21, 2021 at 12:39 pm | Reply

    I am very disappointed to read that the teacher did not know this child played that game at home before now. She could’ve diverted all of this with communicating with the parents. Also communicating with your para pro so eve is on the same page. There is always time to bring in the resource officers to meet your SPED Students so they are aware of their quirks and their names. The school administration should also know these children should an emergency come up. It is also stated in Cobb county schools if you have a BIP you share that with your resource officer and you share that with your para pro. Shame on the school for putting this child and parent through this.

    Get with Cobb county school board and ask them to make this go away!!! Schools hate when you go to the school board but it usually gets things done quicker and more efficiently so the school will stop getting bad press.
    Oh and this is bad press for sure !!!!!

    • Local autist | June 22, 2021 at 6:50 pm | Reply

      This is pretty typical of sped employees actually. In my experience most of them aren’t good people.

  12. Sad!!!! An autistic boy can be charged with felony but Donald Trump keeps his immunity for inciting January 6th riots.

  13. This mom is truly sick in the head. Obviously her son is already violent and not in control of his actions, then she has him sit on the computer playing violent video games all day! He’s a ticking time bomb and she’s the one lighting the fuse. Shame on her!

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