Behavior-Disordered Students Pose Dilemma

Article excerpt

A 15-year-old boy spent years wandering through school hallways and a bureaucratic system that ultimately couldn't keep track of him. Now he's in juvenile custody, accused of murdering Christine Smetzer in a restroom at McCluer North High School.

Smetzer, a 15-year-old freshman, was found badly beaten in a restroom stall just after the school dismissal bell last Tuesday. She died on the way to a hospital. She will be buried Monday.

School officials classified the suspect as having a behavior disorder, a disability that qualified him to receive services from the Special School District of St. Louis County. Children with such problems cannot control their behavior because their brains seem to "short circuit" in a way not fully understood.

Officials from the Special School District, which serves 22,200 disabled students, refused to discuss the student or his record.

G. Robert Fritz, superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant School District, which operates McCluer North, said the suspect had been receiving Special District services since he was placed in a special class in seventh grade two school years ago in Ferguson Middle School.

Officials in neither district will talk further. They cite federal and state laws governing student privacy, juvenile offenders and the education of disabled students.

Even so, people who know the suspect and the schools he attended say he was known to skip classes and, on at least one previous occasion, wander into a girls' restroom.

The suspect has been a student in the three levels of classes offered by the Special School District - in a separate building, in a separate classroom in a regular building and in a regular classroom with support services.

At one point, the boy attended a school run by the Special School District that serves only disabled students. This is the most supervised, controlled environment for behavior-disordered students.

Then he transferred to Ferguson Middle to a separate classroom taught by a Special School District teacher. There, he had a little more freedom and mixed with regular students at lunch and in some classes.

Sources say the suspect got into trouble for wandering the halls and skipping school. Educators who evaluated him did not cite unusually aggressive behavior.

The boy improved at Ferguson Middle. The school was honored last fall by a national organization for its programs that encourage students to solve problems without violence.

By eighth grade, the suspect was spending more than half his day in regular classes there. He got special tutoring alone or in small groups from a Special School District teacher. He graduated from eighth grade last spring with a regular certificate.

But when he started at McCluer High School last fall in regular classes, the teen couldn't handle the freedom, even with help from a Special School District teacher, sources say.

By October, the suspect was caught in a girls' restroom at the high school and suspended. Ferguson-Florissant officials asked the Special School District to re-evaluate him.

In late fall, Special School District staff members recommended that the suspect be transferred to a separate classroom at McCluer North that was supposed to give him more supervision and structure. They decided to wait until the beginning of the next semester.

Before year's end, the suspect was suspended again, this time for stealing. Over the Christmas vacation juvenile authorities detained him for allegedly breaking into a house, neighbors say. …

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