Parents Sue City Over Students Sent to Emergency Rooms

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Nelson Mar, an attorney with Legal Services of New York in the Bronx.

In the fall of 2012, a five year-old kindergarten child was sent to emergency rooms on four different occasions for being disruptive at his Bronx public school, according to his mother. After it happened again last month, the mother contacted Legal Services and decided to sue the city.

"It felt like I hit rock bottom," said the woman. She claimed she lost her job because she spent so much time either being called to school or to pick her son up from the hospital, and is now fighting eviction proceedings. She was also billed for medical expenses and ambulance fees. Each time, she said her son was released from the hospital after an examination determined he did not need any care.

The woman, Ms. H, does not want to be identified except by her initials in court papers. She is one of six New York City parents of children with disabilities who are suing the city for unspecified damages. The suit claims the children were wrongly sent to emergency rooms and that the schools could have resorted to other methods for solving behavioral problems - methods that should have been included in their special education plans. The lawsuit also alleges the children's federally protected right to an education was forcefully interrupted by having them removed from school by ambulance, because they were not in need of emergency medical care.

The suit was filed in federal court last Wednesday and was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A city law department spokeswoman said, "We will review the claims in the complaint."

Department of Education spokesman Devon Puglia said, "We always put student learning and safety first. Our school leaders make decisions in the best interests of children - be it instructionally or otherwise."

Legal Services attorney Nelson Mar said this is the first lawsuit of its kind over sending children to emergency rooms. He and his fellow attorneys have been documenting the practice for some time and WNYC examined the schools that sent the most children to emergency rooms. The list largely consisted of buildings with programs for students with severe disabilities. In the 2011-12 school year, about 3800 calls were made to 911 from public school buildings for emotionally disturbed persons.

According to the new lawsuit, the six children were exhibiting behavior that ranged from jumping and hitting people to hitting staff members, yelling and climbing on top of a cabinet. Some were said to have made threatening statements or gestures. The children were diagnosed with disabilities including emotional disturbance, autism and Asperger's Syndrome. They range in age from elementary through high school. None were admitted to hospitals.

Ms. H. said it was traumatic for her five-year-old to be sent to the emergency room so many times during kindergarten. School security agents would accompany him to the ambulance, and he began to dislike going to school. "He used to like police officers and dress up like them," she said. "Now he's afraid."

However, she said things did improve this year now that he has been diagnosed as having an emotional disturbance and is attending a smaller class with an adult and a paraprofessional. But she still doesn't understand why the school needed to send him to the hospital last month instead of allowing her to calm him down in the principal's office. As usual, she said, if the school had waited 10 or 15 minutes for her to arrive and speak with him, there would have been no need for an ambulance.