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.