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Mar 8, 2017 10:50 AM

EXCLUSIVE: New accusations of NH school officials treating autistic students poorly

PELHAM — Another family is speaking out against administrators at Pelham Memorial School, alleging their autistic son has been failed.

These allegations come less than three weeks after the community rallied around Max Bedard, an eighth-grader who was turned away from a dance at the school because he wasn't wearing a button-down shirt. Max also has autism and is most comfortable wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants.

READ: Pelham rallies around autistic student after dance dress code leaves him in tears

His mother, Michelle Bedard, said Principal Stacy Maghakian told Max he couldn't stay at the dance in those clothes. However, the support from the community in the following days was overwhelming.

"It was … it was mind-blowing," Bedard said. "I can't say enough about (the kids in this community). They all banded together to support a fellow student. They weren't protesting against anyone. They were support someone, and that was a beautiful thing."

But now it seems Max isn't the only student with autism who had struggles at the school.

The day before Max had to leave the dance, Susan and Kevin Macintyre filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights regarding incidents in early October in which they claim their son, Nathan, was harassed and discriminated against by the same administration.

Nathan Macintyre is 11 years old and was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) when he was a toddler. He attended public school his entire life and is a great student his parents said, but he had anxieties about transitioning from fifth to sixth grade, which meant moving from Pelham Elementary to Pelham Memorial.

Susan Macintyre said part of the problem was a proper transition plan was never created or implemented. His anxieties continued, keeping Nathan out of a classroom for nearly seven weeks.

"Nathan was never able to attend an actual class," she said. "He was slowly building up his tolerance to being at the school. Right before this happened, he was up to two hours at the school, so he was making great progress."

Macintyre said that all changed on Oct. 3, 2016. Nathan admits he was having what he called an "off day," and was struggling to do his work, let alone go into the classroom with other students.

That was when Maghakian and Assistant Principal Jesse Haarlander confronted Nathan about his behavior, Macintyre said.

Nathan remembers exactly what was said that day.

"Then (Maghakian) said, ‘Nathan, you can’t do this. You have to … if you come here, you have to go to class or do your work,'" he recalled. "They were watching (from the hallway) as I sat there and balled my eyes out."

Macintyre said the expectations the administrators had for Nathan and the way they treated him was inappropriate.

"Nathan, being a student identified with autism, has difficulty making and maintaining eye contact, especially in a situation where he's upset," she said. "(Maghakian) called him out, and bullied him, and belittled him for failure to show respect to her, by not looking directly at her."

Shortly after, the Macintyre's decided to take Nathan out of the district. He now attends a private school nearly an hour from his home. So far, the family says this has been a much better option."

"(It's) much better than it was at Memorial. I can actually go to class," Nathan said.

Though his parents agree, they said they wanted nothing more than for their son to stay within the public school system. But more than that, they say their priority was making sure he was successful.

"He’s doing phenomenal. He loves it. The school is very happy to have him as well," Macintyre said. "His lowest grade average is a 90 percent, but there’s something that was taken away from him, and that’s upsetting."

What was more upsetting, Macintyre said, was learning about what happened to Max at the school dance and realizing her son wasn't the only one who'd been mistreated.

"Angry doesn't even begin ... the district said the matter would be fully investigated. If it was, certainly nothing came of it because had something come of it, what happened to Max never would've happened," she said. "It’s not just our son, it’s not just her son. There are other kids."

The Pelham School Board has responded to the concerns in the form of a letter sent out to parents. In it, Board Chair Brian Carton said they are planning a "public discussion in coming weeks with the subject, 'Special Needs and the Pelham School District: Exploring new pathways to greater integration,'" to address policy.

However, he added they will not be able to discuss any specific incidents or people, as "a public discussion involving an individual student or employee at a Board meeting or forum could potentially place the District in legal jeopardy."

A date and time has not yet been set for the discussion, and Superintendent Amanda Lecaroz wrote in an email that the district is "working on the logistics and plan for the forum so it communicates and accomplishes our goals of inspiring success one mind at a time as effectively as possible."

The School Board's next meeting is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. One of the agenda items for that meeting is "Special Ed Redesign."

In the meantime, the Macintyre's complaint with the OCR is pending. The community is also planning a dance for Max at the Merrimack Valley Golf Club in Methuen, Mass., to make up for the one he couldn't attend.

Macintyre and Bedard also are working together to make sure the issues at the school are addressed and all students in Pelham are treated with respect.

"As upsetting as what happened to my son was, it’s bringing attention to a very serious problem," Bedard said. "And I think now, we have the opening to address this and make some changes, because this shouldn’t be happening to children, period. Special needs or not."

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