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Autistic boy to return to special school

A federal judge Friday ordered a 16-year-old autistic student attending Chamberlain High School to return to LaVoy Exceptional Center against his parents wishes.

The Hillsborough school system had sought the court action to move Christian Ragusa because officials said he punched and kicked other students and school employees after he was transferred to Chamberlain from LaVoy earlier this year.

John Meyer, who worked with Christian as a paid "one-on-one" aide testified Friday that officials would need "just Christian, an aide and a teacher in a classroom to guarantee other children's safety."

Meyer also said Christian's violent outbursts seemed to be increasing in the past two months.

The issues surrounding the transfer of Christian from his special school to Chamberlain are being debated nationwide as the practice of "inclusion" _ the placing of disabled students in the same schools as other students _ becomes more widespread.

The Hillsborough School Board filed suit in federal court Oct. 14 seeking to move Christian. Ten days ago, U.S. District Judge Ralph W. Nimmons ordered Christian removed from the school and scheduled Friday's hearing to decide what to do about a long-term placement for the youth.

Jenna Hodgens, who had Christian in her classroom at Chamberlain testified that "one student would not come to school" for fear of being hit again by Christian. She said the father of that autistic student said "three people would have to pry him loose . . . to put him on the bus . . . because he didn't want to come to school."

Laura Whiteside, attorney for the Ragusa family, said she viewed the judge's decision as a compromise.

The Ragusas objected to the boy's return to LaVoy for two reasons. They say he does not adapt well to change, and that he would have been taught by a substitute teacher at LaVoy who they say lacked the qualifications to work with autistic children.

Whiteside said the family was somewhat placated by the assigning of a qualified teacher who will work with their son.

"They view it as a sign that the School Board wants to work with them," she said.

"The parents have reached the conclusion that if the School Board did not want a placement to work, other than LaVoy, that it wouldn't," Whiteside said.

The case marks the first time the Hillsborough school district has gone to court to have a student removed from a school.

If Christian were not disabled, he could have been suspended or expelled for his behavior. But the law prevents school districts from expelling handicapped students if their offenses are related to their disability.

Angela Ragusa, Christian's mother, thinks the School Board's action has set a disturbing precedent.

"I think this is a new tool that this school district is trying to use," she said. "I think we just happen to be the first. They're not happy with you unless you roll over like a dog for them."

Christian could start school again at LaVoy as early as Monday when a new teacher arrives to replace another who is on medical leave. The teacher on leave was injured by another autistic student.