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Schoolyard allowed to bar autistic boy

Maine court finds testing justified

Jan Rankowski, an autistic boy in Falmouth, Maine, should not return to the town's only public-school playground, a judge ruled yesterday, saying that the 9-year-old posed "a significant risk" to the health and safety of other children and the adults supervising them.

School officials barred the boy from the playground in November after teachers and some children complained that the fourth-grader, who is home-schooled, was overly defiant and aggressive in the schoolyard.

In a ruling issued yesterday, Cumberland Superior Court Judge Thomas Humphrey said the decision to keep Jan off the playground was not discriminatory and that the school made reasonable requests to evaluate the boy's behavior, but his parents refused.

The family had filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction that would have allowed Jan to use the playground.

"While there was testimony that Jan's behavior was both consistent with his disability and consistent with that of a nondisabled child his age, the school's decision was not based on his disability, but on the school's legitimate need to obtain an assessment of the child and develop a plan for his safe and beneficial use of the facility," Humphrey wrote in his decision.

Jan's parents, Gayle Fitzpatrick and Charles Rankowski, said the ruling would only exacerbate the limitations on their son's life. Advocates for the disabled said the decision reflected a lack of awareness of autism.

"I'm appalled since my child has never hurt anybody in his entire life," said Fitzpatrick, who added that the family plans to appeal the ruling. "The fact that his neurology is different makes him a threat in the public mind. That is archaic. They're basically saying to put him back in the attic."

In the lawsuit, the family accused school officials of discriminating against Jan, who has a highly functional form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome, by illegally denying him access to the public schoolyard.

School officials have said the child presented a threat. Barbara Powers, former principal of Falmouth's Plummer-Motz Elementary School, testified that she had received complaints that Jan used offensive or threatening language and threw rocks. Jan and his parents have said those things never happened.

"I and all of the administrators are delighted that the judge really validated the request to work out a behavioral plan that everybody could follow," said Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the Falmouth school district. "What my clients are hoping is that this will make the family reassess their position and partner with the school to develop a successful plan for Jan."

Jan's parents withdrew him from public school two years ago over concerns that the school was failing to meet his special needs. Fitzpatrick requested use of the playground, however, so that Jan could interact with his peers during recess and help improve social skills that typically are poor for people with autism.

Jan rarely makes eye contact, according to his doctors' assessment, and gets distressed by loud noises. When frustrated, he can become explosive or flee, the assessment said. Last fall, the doctors said Jan had the social skills of a 4-year-old.

In November, school officials suspended the fourth-grader from the playground and said he would be allowed back only if they could conduct an extensive evaluation.

His parents were unwilling, saying they had provided the school with hundreds of pages of evaluations conducted by a team of specialists and that the school's assessment would be used only to further discriminate against the boy. Jan hasn't been back to the playground for nearly 10 months.

Stephen Shore, president of the board of the Asperger's Association of New England, called the judge's ruling "a big setback for advocacy efforts."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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