It’s such a simple word but it has significant importance to Belinda and Richard Daniels of Rockmart. They say all they want is justice for their 15-year-old son, Christopher.
Christopher is an eighth-grader at Rockmart Middle School. His parents said he is a typical teen in most every way, except for his learning challenges. Christopher has disabilities in the autism spectrum and some social difficulties associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, according to his parents and school documentation.
He also has temporal lobe epilepsy, commonly called complex partial seizures, according to his parents.
His parents said his disabilities led to a school incident last year, which in turn, led to three felony charges against Christopher for carrying knives to school.
“This poor boy was treated and considered as a juvenile delinquent and he is not. This is a system that doesn’t know how to handle his disability,” Mrs. Daniels said.
Mrs. Daniels said the family’s personal nightmare began when a few of Christopher’s friends came over to their house March 8, 2008.
That was when she said Christopher was showing his knife collection to his friends.
“He has a butterfly knife and two other pocketknives they were interested in more than the others, so he, being cautious, put them in his pocket,” she said.
A little later, Christopher had a seizure. He recovered, but went to bed in his clothes exhausted from the seizure, his mother said. Christopher woke up the next day and went to school in the same jeans with no idea the three knives were still inside his pocket.
Mrs. Daniels said Christopher’s father gave him $40 that day to spend at the book fair. Excited, Christopher told one of his friends in physical education class about the money. He found the knives when he reached in his pocket to pull out the money to show his friend.
“He didn’t know what to do and didn’t know how to handle the situation. He was hoping to ink by the rest of the day,” she said.
That could have been possible, but Mrs. Daniels said another boy overheard her son talk about the money and the knives. She said that boy tried to take the money from Christopher, which led to a fistfight. Both boys were sent to the office.
“That boy, to save his skin, said ‘He’s got knives,” she said.
Christopher told officials about the knives when they asked him. School officials followed their “zero tolerance” protocol, expelled him and called police.
According to a copy of the Polk School District manifestation determination form, provided by the Daniels, Christopher told school officials he never thought about the knives during the fight.
The team agreed Christopher did not intend to harm anyone and agreed his disabilities played a role in the altercation.
According to the report, the two boys began a friendly banter about the money and Christopher misinterpreted it as a threat to take his money.
Christopher then threatened to hit the other boy and the boy replied with the dare to hit him. Christopher then took that as an instruction instead of a dare.
Christopher went through a school tribunal, which went positively for him. He is now back in school and made honor roll this year.
No one was available at the school system office for comment.
The Daniels said Christopher pleaded before Judge Michael Murphy, explained what happened, and took responsibility. They said the judge was ready to dismiss the case, but an aggressive assistant district attorney, Craig Miller, pushed the case and Murphy sentenced Christopher to two years probation.
However, the sentence didn’t turn out to be standard probation. Courtroom paperwork states Christopher is on probation with special conditions. One of those conditions is that he participates in the High Intensity Team Supervision (HITS) program for the entire two years of his probation.
HITS is a program out of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice which basically puts a youth under house arrest, leaving only for school, work, medical appointments and religious services and always accompanied by a parent or guardian.
HITS includes home checks, phone calls and electronic monitoring.
Court papers state other special conditions placed on Christopher include reporting to a probation officer once a month. He can’t use any illegal substances, such as tobacco, alcohol or drugs. He is subject to random drug screens, can’t miss any school except for medical excuses, can’t have any further reported incidents of any illegal acts, and must always have permission from a parent to leave the house.
Further, Christopher cannot spend the night away from home without his probation officer’s permission. Even if permission is given, he must be under the direct supervision of an approved adult at all times, according to the paperwork.
Also, he can have no contact with anyone his parents or the probation officer deems inappropriate, anyone under a court order for no contact, or any non-relative under adult supervision or under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
He also has to participate in court ordered assessments at Highland Rivers and follow their recommendations, or that of a private therapist, within 30 days.
For the Daniels, the type of probation given to Christopher is too strict for the offense.
“He can’t sleep over at a friend’s house and they can’t sleep over here,” his mother said, adding that all of his friends must have the approval of the state before he can associate with them.
“He’s got to be a perfect child the entire time, which he’s not. He’s got issues, which could get him into situations. Now, he’s been convicted of three felony charges,” she said.
What’s worse, they said, is that the state is telling them how to parent.
“Basically, somebody somewhere has made up their mind what to do with this child and no one wills it down with us,” Richard Daniels said.
“The only thing we’re trying to achieve here is for everyone to leave us alone to take care of our son’s needs as we see fit.”
The Daniels are attempting to have the guilty plea withdrawn. They are also exchanging a public defender for a paid attorney, but said they are having trouble finding one they can afford. Most want a $2,500 retainer and, being small business owners, the Daniels just don’t have it.
They are taking Christopher in late January for some tests in hopes of refuting a forensic psychiatrist’s exam in court. They said that exam revealed Christopher “lacks respect for authority” and “resents his parents” and, therefore, can be classified as a potentially violent teen.
“He’s a teenager. Of course he hates us,” his mother said.
The Daniels said this is a case of a multitude of errors on part of the school system, the police department and the court system. Mrs. Daniels said over zealous enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy, a misunderstanding of her son’s condition, and an overburdened public defense system with less skilled attorneys.
“This is what this no tolerance policy is, black and white. There are gray areas, circumstances to take into consideration,” Mrs. Daniels said.
“We can’t get information about how they arrived at that decision (to put their son in the HITS program and on special conditions),” Richard Daniels said.
“The judge didn’t say anything but a regular probation. As far as I can see, it was the probation department who felt he would need to be a part of the HITS program.”
Daniels said he feels like that decision was made on the prosecution side before they walked into the courtroom. He said it upsets him they weren’t told that was a possibility and that the HITS option was not discussed with them before it was agreed upon.
He said he felt the public defender was taken off guard because she hadn’t heard of the HITS program Daniels said she was not on an equal skill level as the prosecution and didn’t have the time necessary to devote to the case or to understand Christopher’s disabilities.
The Daniels said problems are rooted in the schools because Polk County schools have not truly offered education suited to Christopher’s needs as defined by his condition.
He gets good grades, but Mrs. Daniels questions what he really is learning.
“My child is in the eighth grade and he can’t make change for a dollar. He can’t read a regular clock,” Mrs. Daniels said.
Christopher’s father said the school system made a lot of promises to them regarding his son’s education when they moved here. None of those were kept, he said.
“He was supposed to get professional help and talk to counselors because his physical condition warranted it. That never happened. They are supposed to be mainstreamed. That never happened. They’re answer is a behavior modification class because they don’t have a special education class,” he said.
Christopher was placed in a behavior modification class though his condition is purely a physical condition. The Daniels said that is entirely wrong for their son because an element of his condition is mimicking behavior around him.
They said that is tantamount to turning their son, who is basically a good, non-violent kid, into a problem child.
Another facet of Christopher’s condition is being unable to distinguish a command from sarcasm. Mrs. Daniels said this is what played a large role in the fistfight.
“He (the other boy) kept saying “Hit me,” and Christopher doesn’t understand what a dare is so he punched him,” she said.
She said his condition also amounts to him “freezing up” in tough situations such as being questioned by school officials about what led to the fight and the discovery of the knives in his pocket.
According to research paperwork provided by the Daniels, the seizures can cause crime with no obvious motive, no attempt to hide it, some abnormal behavior that isn’t entirely appropriate, impairment in awareness and amnesia.
Part of the lack of understanding about Christopher’s condition is because he doesn’t look any different from any other student, even when he has a seizure, Mrs. Daniels said.
“Sometimes, he will be in the throws of a seizure, he’s just agitated and snappy,” she said, adding that a severe seizure makes him look vacant and an uncontrolled lifting of the right hand.
Aspergers Syndrome is a newly recognized neurological disorder where those with it can’t understand how people around them think or feel. Because of this, they tend to act inappropriately and have difficulty coping with change, even though they have average or above-average intelligence.
To outsiders, this seems as if the person has a lack of common sense.
The Daniels have been dealing with their son’s issues since he was born.
“What happened at birth is the umbilical cord started separating from the placenta and they didn’t do a timely (Caesarian) section,” Mrs. Daniels said.
“A blood clot passed through Christopher’s brain and he had a stroke at birth.”
His parents said he didn’t exhibit any problems until he was six years old. That’s when the seizures started. They said doctors explained he hit a growth spurt, which caused the changes.
Once Christopher is out of the court system, his parents said they are looking to addressing problems with the school system even if that means filing a lawsuit against the school and the Polk County School District.
There was an error in the above story running earlier this week on The Polk Fish Wrap. The article listed the judge in the case as Superior Court Judge Michael Murphy. The judge was actually Juvenile Court Judge Mark Murphy. The Polk Fish Wrap apologizes for any inconvenience the error may have caused.