CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Less than two weeks before the start of classes at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the family of Mackenzie Dykes doesn’t know when or if she will return to school.
Both a doctor and a mental health counselor determined that a once playful and active 11-year-old now has trouble walking and suffers more seizures and asthma attacks because of a series of injuries she sustained while at Blythe Elementary School in Huntersville.
Since Mackenzie is autistic and can have difficulty communicating with others, she will require more therapy than normal “in order to fully process the trauma she has experienced in the school setting,” says a March letter written by her counselor.
CMS says it is now looking into what happened.
In the last six years, federal officials have cited the district for failing to give students a proper education, supervision, transportation and other needed services. In at least 12 cases, the district has agreed to federal monitoring or corrective action to ensure it follows laws meant to provide equal access to public education for people with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating a dozen other cases in which CMS has been accused of violating the civil rights of students with disabilities or special needs.
Federal records show repeated complaints under the district’s last three superintendents, including the recently departed Clayton Wilcox.
The CMS school board members have not explained publicly why they last month abruptly suspended Wilcox, who then resigned after two years on the job. Board members did not respond to a request for interviews or referred questions to district administrators for this report.
Wilcox’s successor, Earnest Winston, previously worked as the district’s ombudsman, which tasked him with helping parents and others in the public find solutions to their problems.
Winifred Frierson, Mackenzie’s mother, sent a May 29 email to Winston and other public officials outlining her concerns, including an incident in which Mackenzie was bitten by another student and taken to urgent care for treatment.
Nearly three months later, Frierson said she has not been provided any information from CMS about the status of the investigation. With school starting soon, she said, she has no assurance that her daughter will be any safer and provided services she needs to attend school.
“It has been hell,” Frierson said.
In a brief interview, Winston said he was aware of the allegations and that the district is still investigating.
Asked whether he had been involved when Mackenzie’s mother grew concerned about her safety late last year, Winston would only say that multiple district departments had been connected to the case.
“We are taking steps to make sure we provide a response,” Winston said. “We want to take it seriously. We are trying to do our due diligence.”
He refused to answer other questions about Mackenzie, saying privacy law prohibited it.
Winston said CMS is doing a good job educating students, including those with disabilities or special needs, but acknowledged “there are gaps that exist.”
“We’re not where we want to be,” he said.
Federal law grants children with disabilities or special needs the right to a public education. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in services, programs, and activities provided by state and local governments, which would include CMS and other school districts.
Given budget and staffing constraints, federal officials start formal investigations after determining which complaints have the most merit.
CMS enrolls more than 15,000 students with disabilities, including roughly 1,800 who are diagnosed with autism.
An Education Department spokesman said that the department’s Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating 12 complaints of possible disability discrimination against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. That’s more than Wake County Schools, North Carolina’s largest school system, which has seven open cases.
Since October 2013, records say, CMS entered into resolution agreements with the federal government 12 times following investigations. The agreements spell out corrective actions the school system must take and outline how federal authorities will monitor schools to ensure compliance with the law.
The letters released by the Department of Education are partially redacted to protect students’ identity and health information.
In one case, a mother alleged that CMS did not provide her son a work space that allowed him to stand and move, documents show. Investigators found insufficient evidence to support that allegation, says a letter from September 2017.
But the mother also accused the district of failing to evaluate another son who attended classes to see if he qualified for special education classes and retaliated against her for advocating for her children.
CMS consented to resolve these allegations by entering into the resolution agreement with the federal agency.
In another resolution agreement from February 2018, the federal government determined that CMS failed to follow the student’s education plan, which outlines accommodations for students with disabilities, according to records.
The agreement required CMS to determine whether the student should receive compensatory or remedial services for the period where the student did not receive “appropriate regular and/or special education or related services.” The district was also required to provide the services deemed necessary and to show documentation to the federal government that the district took those steps.
Under the agreement, however, the district did not admit violating the student’s civil rights.
Tracy Russ, a district spokesman, said CMS cannot comment on individual cases, due to student privacy.
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is committed to helping all children achieve college and career readiness,” Russ said in an email. “Reports of incidents involving the safety, health and well-being of any student are investigated thoroughly and actions taken within CMS policy.”
Addressing possible disability discrimination is important since academic outcomes for students with special needs lag behind other students, said Lauren Katzman, executive director of the Urban Collaborative, an advocacy group for inclusive educational practices.
Graduation rates are lower for students with disabilities and special needs while rates of suspensions and expulsion are higher, particularly for children of color, Katzman said.
“It’s improving, but there’s a pretty large gap,” she said.
Mackenzie Dykes has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, a condition that can impair social functioning, reduce the ability to communicate and lead to social withdrawal. The exact cause of autism remains unknown, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, a federal agency for research on mental disorders.
Mackenzie attended special education classes at Blythe Elementary until late last year when she was in the third grade. Records from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools show educators once described her as a “talented and loving student with many academic strengths.”
But last fall, something changed.
A girl who once participated in Special Olympics programs and played at an indoor trampoline park now had trouble walking relatively short distances. She had more seizures than normal from her epilepsy. Her stamina was sapped.
Mackenzie now uses a stroller at times because she becomes fatigued from walking, according to her medical records. She would need a walker if she attends school again this fall, her medical records say. She is so fearful of pain, her mother said Mackenzie sometimes refuses to watch cartoons if the hero might get hurt.
“It was like the life was being taken out of her,” said Winifred Frierson, her mother.
Frierson and some of Mackenzie’s medical providers blame the school.
She said Mackenzie was injured multiple times at school, including at least twice when she had to seek medical attention.
In one case, Frierson said another student bit Mackenzie, breaking the skin and leaving a painful gash on her upper back.
The school placed Mackenzie in a new classroom after she was bitten, a move her mental health counselor criticized as traumatizing for a person with autism.
“A person with Autism Spectrum Disorder will have significant struggles when dealing with changes to their routine,” say a March letter from Aimee Whaley, a licensed counselor. “Mackenzie has already experienced trauma in the school setting related to physical injury and asthma attack yet she is also expected to adapt to multiple significant changes in her daily school routine.”
In November, Frierson stopped sending Mackenzie to the school. One of Mackenzie’s medical providers recommended homebound education services, where students can get lessons from school sent to their home.
The school system has refused to provide the required services to keep Mackenzie’s education on track, Frierson said. CMS’ attempt to provide homebound services consisted only little more than sending her a stack of worksheets, Frierson said.
A 39-year-old mother of three, Frierson said she has been diagnosed with Lupus, an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues and organs.
She said the fight with CMS over Mackenzie’s education has impacted her health too.
Now, she wants to help others.
“It didn’t have to get to this point,” she said. “We want to make sure no other child, no other adult goes through this.”