FALMOUTH, Maine – What started as a playground spat between school officials and the parents of a child with autistic-like behavior could end up having repercussions for the way school districts treat children with neurological disorders.
"This is going to help children across America," said Charles Rankowski, Jan's father. "Schools are going to realize they can't exclude a child because of a disability."
School officials say Jan was never permanently barred. They only wanted a psychologist to evaluate his playground behavior after complaints from students and staff. His parents refused.
Asperger's syndrome, named for a Viennese physician, is an autism-related condition characterized by deficiencies in social and communication skills that was first recognized as a disability only a decade ago.
For children with Asperger's, a simple conversation can be a minefield of misunderstandings. People say things they don't mean, or say one thing and do another. Social interactions don't always follow logical rules.
That's why experts say it is so important for such children to play with other kids, to learn the behavioral norms that most youngsters are socialized into understanding.
"By banning the kid from the most social part of the day, you're ensuring that he won't be able to learn social skills. It's almost like saying, 'You don't know math, so we're not letting you in the math class,'" said Wayne Gilpin, president of Future Horizons (search) in Texas, which publishes books and holds conferences on autism and Asperger's syndrome.
Jan's family moved from New York to Falmouth after the 2001 terror attacks and the boy attended the Plummer-Motz School in the second grade, enrolled in special education classes. He improved so much over the year that school officials wanted to move him to a regular class in the third grade.
But Jan's parents wanted him to stay in special education classes. His mother, Gayle Fitzpatrick, felt that putting Jan into mainstream classes was "a disaster waiting to happen" so she taught him at home.
"Just because you're getting somewhere, doesn't mean you remove it," she said. "If it's working, don't fix it."
Jan's parents were elated when Jan asked to go to the school's playground after a year of home-schooling. "When he said he wanted to go play with other kids, we thought it was great," Charles Rankowski said.
In the year that Jan attended the school, there were no incident reports filed about Jan's playground behavior. But administrators said they began fielding complaints shortly after he began playing there last fall.
Students reported that Jan swore and threatened them, played roughly with younger children and kicked one child. Teacher's aides said he defied their commands and told students they didn't have to listen, either.
"This is somebody who would not take adult instruction and was encouraging other students not to," said Melissa Hewey, attorney for the school officials. "The people who are supervising the playground during school hours need to be listened to, by everybody."
While Jan's parents say students who misbehaved similarly would be punished by being barred for a few days, school officials say Jan's suspension was not disciplinary. They wanted to return him to the playground once a psychologist could evaluate his behavior and determine ways for him to interact better with other children.
Jan's parents say previous assessments of the boy were sufficient and that his suspension was meant to exclude their son. "Discrimination is treating someone very, very differently," Fitzpatrick said. "Neurologically based behaviors are not crime scenes waiting to happen."
A state judge last month denied a request by Jan's parents for an injunction to allow him to visit the playground while the case was decided. No trial date has been set.
The boy's parents say they hope their lawsuit will force schools to treat disabled or home-schooled children the same way as other children. Others across the country are watching the case as the number of children diagnosed with Asperger's continues to climb.
As many as 1 in 250 children could have Asperger's syndrome, Gilpin said from his office in Arlington, Texas. "Any legal precedent can be used in other jurisdictions, so it could have important national implications," he said.