CHAPEL HILL - John normally sits in a front seat by the window. When he tried to move around another student to get to that seat last week, the bus driver told him to sit down, and when he protested, he was later suspended, according to his mother
A student at Smith Middle School was kicked off the school bus last week because he is autistic, his mother says.
John O’Sullivan, an eighth grader, was suspended from riding the morning bus for three days because he displayed “autistic behaviors,” and stood up while the bus was moving, said Megan O’Sullivan.
The 14-year-old has Aspberger syndrome, a form of autism that affects a person’s social abilities and often includes restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Riding the school bus challenges him because it is noisy and hectic; it’s sensory overload, O’Sullivan said.
John normally sits in a front seat by the window. When he tried to move around another student to get to that seat last week, the bus driver told him to sit down, and when he protested, he was later suspended, according to his mother
Stephanie Knott, spokeswoman for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, said she could not comment on what happened.
“Any disciplinary matter concerning a child is confidential .... [and] whether or not a child has a special need is confidential,” Knott said.
The district adheres to all state and federal policies regarding students with special needs and disciplinary procedures, she said. The suspension
The morning he was suspended, John said he was trying to move around another student to get to his usual seat when the bus driver “freaked out.”
“I wasn’t stopping him from sitting next to me, I just needed him to move to get to my seat,” he said. “The bus driver freaked out. ... It’s not [that] the kid really cared it was just the bus driver who cared.”
The bus driver continued to yell at him, then asked him to write down his name, John said. He was tired of always having to write his name for school in English, so he wrote it in Greek and handed it to the driver.
“He was furious,” he said.
Later Spencer Hawkins, the school’s principal intern, who works with the school’s administrators, told him he was being suspended, but didn’t give a clear reason why, John said.
“I don’t know what did,” he said. “Everything I told him that I did, he said I did well.”
Smith Middle School Principal Phil Holmes later confirmed that the suspension was for standing up and arguing, and acknowledged that they were autistic behaviors, Megan O’Sullivan said.
Multiple efforts to reach Holmes and Assistant Principal Esther Hahm were unsuccessful last week.
In an e-mail to O’Sullivan, Hawkins confirmed that John was being suspended for three days through last Thursday, and said the school would support reserving the same seat for him on the bus each morning.
“I spoke to his morning driver this afternoon and alerted him about the next three days and also supported the need for John to be granted a reserved seat as a matter of routine,” Hawkins wrote.
In the e-mail Hawkins also noted that John had resolved a separate, but similar issue with his afternoon bus driver earlier in the year, and said that John has had no problems since.
“I will be happy to support John's efforts to that end and will help him process any questions or concerns that might come up,” he wrote.Disappointed
O’Sullivan, John and her daughter, Laura, a fifth grader at Sewell Elementary School, moved to Chapel Hill in August. She has been frustrated by how the district responds to autism.
“We’ve been disappointed with the way they handle autistic kids,” she said.
“(John) is very intellectual and has an incredible vocabulary, so that masks his social disability. He’s well behind his peers socially,” she said. “He doesn’t understand communication or body language ... even the teachers tend to expect more from him than he can deliver.”
The 37-year-old single mother works at Barnes and Noble at the Streets at The Streets at Southpoint in Durham. It was difficult to get John to school on the days he was suspended, she said.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools offers several programs for autistic students and their parents, Knott said. Every middle and elementary school in the district has an autism specialist to work with students and parents, and several schools have a Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program, a federal template for schools to establish effective disciplinary programs. Smith Middle School has won an award in the past for its use of this program, she said.
“That program does a really nice job of understanding behavior expectations and instituting ... rewards for demonstrating good behavior,” she said.“Toll on my ability”
John says Aspberger’s sometimes makes it hard to understand why he acts like he does.
“Throughout the day I need to calm down many times simply because it’s too stressful. It has a huge toll on my ability to deal with anything else,” he said.
Some of his challenges come from rigid fixations he has, he said.
“For me I have fixations where there will be one thing that is really interesting and I need to at least acknowledge it and do something related to it, however frequently, depending on however fixated on it I am.”
Right now, he’s memorizing the Greek alphabet and compiling an comprehensive list of all animals, including their scientific names, social behaviors and what they eat, that weigh more than 100 pounds and have lived on earth over the last 100,000 years. He’ll use the list and the Greek he’s learning for a book he’s writing to be set in the mythological age.
“I have to do it because it supports other fixations of mine,” he said.