Banned from the playground

Falmouth, Maine school officials banned a home-schooled boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism, from the town’s only public playground. Jan Rankowski, 9, “challenged the staff’s control at the playground and presented ’emotional safety’ risks to the other children,” school officials told the Boston Globe. Emotional safety? What does that mean?

They said he undermined adults, used unacceptable language, and played aggressively with other children, including pushing a first-grader too hard on a swing.

School officials control the playground’s use during the school day. The boy, supervised by his mother or a home-school aide, joined public school students during recess so he could interact with kids his own age.

At the age of 8, Jan had the social skills of a 4-year-old, a doctor concluded. He gets angry when frustrated or runs away. He doesn’t look people in the eyes or make small talk. Loud, sudden noises upset him.

Still, he’d played with other children for a year without problems after his parents pulled him from school and hired specialists to teach him at home. Last fall, however, other students began calling Jan “crazy” and other names.

The principal’s response to complaints was to assign an aide to monitor the playground and take notes on Jan’s behavior.

In an interview last week, (Principal Barbara) Powers said the increased supervision of Jan’s behavior revealed problems with aggressive play, including throwing rocks, and defiance of authority.

Throwing rocks at a person? Or just throwing?

The teacher’s aide noted that the autistic boy jumped off a bench the wrong way, walked away from a game, refused to greet an aide, cursed at the staff, and reported that someone was spying on him, according to court records.

He’s an awkward jumper with poor social skills, but he’s smart enough to know the aide was spying on him.

Six weeks later, Powers said, the situation came to a head when the boy defied authority on several occasions. She declined to give details.

With Superintendent Timothy McCormack’s approval, the principal suspended Jan, then 9, from using the playground until the school could evaluate his behavior and set expectations for his behavior in the school yard.

The parents, who no longer trust the school staff, refused to let Jan be evaluated. They filed suit.

The family’s lawsuit includes school records of other students’ misbehavior at the playground, including an incident in which a student brought a knife to recess and another kicked a peer. Both lost recess privileges for three days.

Meanwhile, Jan is spending more time with his computers and no time with other children.

Most of the time, I side with school staffers who complain about the burden of mainstreaming very disabled children. But this boy’s problems, which stem from his disability, aren’t that severe. He can be taught to greet people, if that’s essential. I know because my nephew, who has Asperger’s, was taught that by a special ed teacher at about the age of 9.

And the school’s going to lose in court. “Emotional safety” implies that other kids have a right not to have their feelings hurt by a kid who doesn’t know when he’s being rude. That’s not going to fly.

About Joanne


  1. Art Davis says:


    You seem to be going off on a tangent here. This kid, though having problems with which anyone can sympathise, is clearly an adverse influnce on the playground. Why are you taking off on this one?

  2. Margaret says:

    This is really sad. The poor kid. If he was still actually enrolled at the school, the principal wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. The parents probably pulled him out in the first place because the school wasn’t really trying to accomodate him, and now they’re being even less accomodating. What really bugs me is that Aspie kids don’t normally need huge amounts of accomodation. A little compassion and common sense can go a long way with them…

  3. From another article:

    School officials maintain they would like to see Jan return to the classroom to be educated. “This could be over tomorrow if they would be willing to allow” the behavioral assessment, Powers said. “Our sincere belief is that the best place for Jan is back in school.”

    It sounds like the school is coming up with excuses. They want him back in school for the special education money.

  4. nichole says:

    I hope it work out for Jan!! Not the school or anyone who is going to “profit” from him. I have a child, now 12, that has bi-polar. He had a principal, that is now a special ed cordinator for the district, who knew how to push his “buttons” in order for him to “become emotionaly and physically” dangerous to the other students. Now I admit, he has problems and we are working on them, thru a residental school NOW, but, it has been frustrating being told that the school district couldn’t accomidate his needs for a home school teacher, and that the district supervisor won’t allow him to go to a special “day treatment” placement. Which, I might add he had all of “eventually”. He was doing great in the home schooling environment, but, she decided that it was not enough and started pushing for him to go to the residental school. Don’t get me wrong, this school has been a “God Send” so far, but it needed to be done earlier (they take in children from 5 years to 17 years) before all the other “steps” became setbacks and tought him that he could act out and get sent home (where he wanted to be) or they needed to leave him in the home schooling or “home Hospital” as it was called. So, I feel for these parents and I know exactly how frustrating dealing with the schools can be. GOOD LUCK TO THEM!!!

  5. Deejay got it right. It’s about the money. If they can get him enrolled in their school and then kick him out after the roll, they’ll get it. Homeschooling or special schooling means they lose it.


  6. What’s more, they would let him throw rocks and tell every other parent in the school that they can’t stop him because of his special education IEP if he were re-enrolled in a public school.

  7. Mark Odell says:

    DeeJay wrote: From another article:

  8. I am sorry, but mainstreaming is not the answer. Sometimes separate is better for all concerned.

  9. The child with Asperger’s Syndrome has either his mother, or an aide, with him on the playground. I assume that the other children, those who call him “crazy”, do not. The school isn’t disturbed by the behavior of their enrolled students, who taunt playmates?

    In addition, the school had someone follow him around for _weeks_ (“Six weeks later, Powers said, the situation came to a head…”). Here’s a suggestion. Follow a “normal” child around for at least six weeks, filing daily reports on his behavior. Do you think, at the end of that time, he might resent that treatment? Heavens, follow a teacher around for half an hour each day, taking notes.

    “The teacher’s aide noted that the autistic boy jumped off a bench the wrong way, walked away from a game, refused to greet an aide,…” First, what’s the right way to jump off a bench? If you observe active kids at recess, there are any number of ways to jump off an object. Second, is it threatening to playmates’ “emotional safety” to have a playmate who walks away from a game? “Normal” children do this all the time while playing. Third, how many children are required, on a regular basis, to greet aides at recess? Probably the same aide who has been shadowing him for weeks on end?

    In short, the school itself set its authority at risk by setting an aide to observe one child for an extended length of time, until a file held enough evidence to ban him from recess.

  10. Uhhm, let’s see, an “emotional danger” to the other kids. That’s a big risk.

    After all, other Falmouth grammar school kids at the playground–one kid brought a knife, another kicked a classmate–resulted in the loss of recess privileges for three days.

    The Falmouth School district is getting a new superintendent, George Entwistle, next week (July 1, 2004)

    The playground from which the boy was banned is (I believe) the ONLY playground in town.

    This sounds like a small-town contretemps to me. Jan’s parents decide to withdraw him from school because his intellectual abilities (which seem to be great) are not being challenged, while his behavior isn’t being managed.

    The withdrawal causes some kind of gossip storm in the parking lot. The principal decides to retaliate by having Jan followed around and eventually banned from the playground–even though there’s always an adult (the mom or the educational aide) to ride herd on the boy.

    Meanwhile, the only one who is losing out is young Jan. I hope his parents have found something great for him to do this summer.

  11. Anyone else wonder about the legitimacy of turning the ONLY park in town over to the school for its exclusive use during the day? It strikes me that such a policy is an unreasonable restriction on the right of taxpayers to have acces to what is supposed to be a public recreational facility.

  12. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Rocks on a playground – Negatory.
    The rest seems within the scope of playground management. Perhaps one of those dog training shock collars. Actually, shock collars might even become standard school wear.

  13. Should you wish to know more about high-functioning autism (as opposed to autism + mental retardation), there is an excerpt from a book here

    and more links.

  14. John Doe says:

    Like it or not, much bad behavior is driven by mental illness. We should never tolerate bad behavior from students just because they have a doctor’s note.

  15. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Jan’s behavior revealed problems with aggressive play, including throwing rocks, and defiance of authority’

    Aggressive play – no not that!

    throwing rocks – If God didn’t want little boys to throw rocks why did he scatter them everywhere? – if it weren’t for rock throwing I’d have never developed my Bob Gibson fastball

    defiance of authority – we’ll have absolutely none of that – sheep only on the playground

  16. Ordinary Guy says:

    I have a hard time relating to conflicts between parents and teachers. I have 3 children in grades 4, 5, and 7. All three have Down Syndrome. The youngest two also have autism. We have always found great support and acceptance from school staff, students and other parents. We try to be very involved in their educational process at school. And, we have been pleased to see how our children seem to bring out the best in most people. Hope you can reach a congenial conclusion with the school system.

  17. Charles Rankowski says:

    Hi, Joanne, and thanks for taking time with this one. I’m the autistic boy’s father. I wanted you to have the latest article.

    It’s important to keep in mind that there is no safety issue; Falmouth’s sworn deposition states there were no rocks thrown, that this was hearsay, from some unspecified person, that some unspecified boys threw rocks (on a day on which Medicare documents establish that Jan was at therapy and not on the playground). Jan was suspended for no other reason than autistic traits, though the school lawyers subsequently realized they had to win public support by making it a safety issue; lying to the press requires no evidence.

    As the latest article states, the list of Jan’s assessments is extensive and some were as recent as 30 days before the school asked for it’s own assesssment, to be performed by edtechs inexperienced in taking assessments, supposedly under the direction of a psychologist in another city who had no experience in autism; ignoring parent’s requests, independent, trained specialists were not allowed to participate in the assesment, and the parents were not allowed to witness the assessment, which I am pretty sure is illegal. The safety issue and the assessment issue are smokescreens, which seem to distract about 1/2 of readers from the fundamental issue that this child was treated quite differently from any other child on the schoolyard, and banned from a (federally decreed) place of public accommodation on the basis of harmless traits characteristic of his disability. -Charles Rankowski

  18. Ordinary Guy says:

    After reading the last article (posted by Charles Rankowski), I wonder how much of this has to do with Jan being homeschooled. Is that perhaps a greater issue to the principal than the disability is?

  19. Public School Teacher says:

    It is frustrating to read all the articles about this case. Most have already condemned the school system – so much for innocent until proven guilty. If Jan did injure another child, you can bet the school system would be held liable. Should the playground really be open to the public during school hours? Potential child molesters free to lurk, noncustodial parents showing up to see children, daycare providers bringing toddlers for recess, etc. Common sense should tell us no. We expect school personnel to maintain a safe environment for students. How can they do this at recess if the general public is free to use the playground? School personnel need to have the authority to regulate activities and monitor behavior on the payground. Take that away and I say take recess away. I feel for those teachers on recess duty who have seen Jan exhibit aggressive behaviors or use inappropriate language. There is nothing those teachers can do and there seems to be a difference of opinion between the school and the parents as to what is appropriate on the playground. I seriously doubt that not “greeting” people has anything to do with the suspension. Do you think maybe the aid was just writing down her observations and now particular notes are being highlighted to make the school look as bad as possible? Very sad. A wonderful school system is now being dragged through the mud over a playground dispute. Enough about poor Jan’s lack of social life because of the big, bad school. Please! His parents can’t hook up with other homeschoolers and have some recess time together? Playdates? Sports? Boyscouts? Use the playground after school with some friends. Is the school obligated to provide social time for all homeschoolers? This has nothing to do with discrimination. Do people REALLY think it’s okay for the public to use the playground while children are outside for recess? If Jan can, that means EVERYBODY can – no discrimination. Think about that.


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