Felony charges dismissed against autistic Cobb middle schooler

sideview of Hightower Trail Middle SchoolHightower Trail Middle School (photo by Rebecca Gaunt)

By Rebecca Gaunt

Felony charges against an autistic Cobb County School District middle school student were dismissed Monday in Cobb County juvenile court.

The court also found that he did not need to be subjected to a comprehensive services plan due to the fact that he already receives extensive private therapy and educational services.

Tovah Ringland, his mother, is breathing a sigh of relief after months of stress and legal expenses. Her son, Jadon, was charged with two counts of making terroristic threats under O.C.G.A. 16-11-37(b), a felony. Ringland said he was “scripting” from a video game, a manifestation of autism, when he made threats to burn the school.

This Courier article from June, provides additional details on the events of the story.

The incident occurred Jan. 29 in a self-contained classroom for students with autism and intellectual disabilities at Hightower Trail Middle School. According to Ringland, six students were enrolled for in-person learning with one virtual student. The class was assigned 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.

Jadon’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) and BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan), which were shared with the Courier, directly address the behavior for which Jadon was charged. Ringland said she went public with her family’s story because she knows too many other families that have suffered when schools didn’t follow the IEP appropriately.

“All I wanted was for them to be nice and say they screwed up,” Ringland said of the district. “I don’t understand why we can’t just be a team.”

Ringland said she met with Hightower Trail’s principal about Jadon’s suspension Feb. 2, but was not informed that the school resource officer had filed a police report until the court intake officer called on Feb. 5. Jadon was not removed from the school premises the day of the incident.

In May, the family learned from court paperwork that there was a second charge for a separate verbal threat that occurred earlier in January. Ringland said the school never informed them of that incident at all. However, the school resource officer made reference to it in his report about the Jan. 29 episode, which led to the additional charge being filed by the court.

Debbie Dobbs is a special education consultant and child advocate. She sees this case as an opportunity to open the dialogue on how parents, educators and law enforcement can work together to keep children physically and emotionally safe.

“Are students receiving appropriate supports and services by the school system? Are both school personnel and law enforcement properly trained on processes, procedures and disabilities? What happens to children if the answer to any of those questions is no? Should children with echolalia be criminalized for their disability?” Dobbs said.

Ringland plans to file a complaint with the state and is considering seeking reimbursement of her legal fees from the district.

She said Jadon is doing well again in the H.A.V.E.N. program, but she’s afraid this will lead to a repeat of the past year’s events. Jadon did so well in the program previously, with all the extra supports in place, that he met the criteria to return to his regular school. She doesn’t want that to happen again.

“I can never have him go back to Hightower. I’m terrified of that. I’m terrified they will release him without supports again,” she said. “He’s very successful where he is. They take away the supports because he’s successful, but he’s successful because of the supports.”

After the story went national, including being picked up by People.com, Ringland said she received supportive messages from families all over the country who had experienced similar situations.

She’s also heard from teachers in the county that some additional training took place this summer.

“I hope there’s change. They did train the officers more. They trained the teachers about calling the resource officers. I just want change. I don’t want anyone else to go through this,” she said.

As for the video game, which Jadon played as a bonding activity with his older brother, he is no longer allowed to play it or watch clips online.

Cobb County School District was asked to comment for the June story. A district spokesperson wrote:

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.”

The district did not respond to requests for clarification on official CCSD procedures for threats or training requirements for school officers.

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.