LAUDERDALE LAKES, Fla. - Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie has removed an elementary school principal from her job while the Broward County school board investigates her decision to put a first-grade student in a front office without teachers or structure, for what sources in the school board say was several weeks and in violation of the boy's right to an education. The incident was brought to light by a Local 10 News investigation.
"How did he get missed? That's the question," said Allicia Walford, chair of Broward's ESE Advisory Council. "How did he get missed?"
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The boy had been removed from class by his teachers at Oriole Elementary School in Lauderdale Lakes due to behavior issues that included hitting and kicking. That's when the principal, LaFerne McLean-Cross, allegedly made the decision to keep him in the front office under the care of clerical workers.
"The principal made a decision that obviously was not the right decision," said school board member Rosalind Osgood after being apprised of the situation.
Osgood said Cross could have easily accessed resources the board has in place to properly educate the child, who is cared for by a single father.
The boy was placed in the front office in early April with a plan to keep him there to the end of the school year on June 9.
Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman obtained cellphone video of the child lashing out at clerical staff, hitting and kicking them, and literally backing one against the wall. Those clerical workers, without proper training, appeared to have no idea how to respond to the child.
Walford, who has a child with special needs herself, said neither the boy or the employees should have been put in that situation at all, nonetheless for weeks on end.
Norman visited the school Tuesday afternoon to find the boy sitting in the front office by himself, sucking his thumb. When he asked to speak with Cross, he was told that she wasn't there.
When Norman returned to the school on Wednesday, the student was no longer being held in the front office and staff said Cross was in her office. But after going inside the office to get the principal, they returned to say that she wasn't there after all.
Sources in the school said Cross had left by a side door and didn't return the entire day.
Norman's initial visit led to a school board investigation, Osgood said, with the school board kicking into action to assist the child.
"They've taken a whole team to meet the needs of the student," she said. "Three or four individuals were brought to the school ... one is going to be doing one-on-one with the student."
Runcie made the decision to remove Cross from the school Thursday night, Osgood said, and staff was informed Friday morning that Cross would not return pending an investigation into what had occurred.
When she was shown cellphone video of the battling between the boy and clerical workers, Walford said the situation was unacceptable.
"That little boy is in anger, that clerical worker is getting frustrated," Walford said. "There is no solution there."
She said that while the school district overall does a good job of helping students like the Oriole first-grader, and has ample resources at his disposal to do so, children at times do "fall through the cracks."
"We have two systems for ESE. We have a system for parents, what we call the tiger moms, who are going to go after and get what the kids need, and then there's everybody else, like this child, who falls through the cracks," she said.
The boy's father, when contacted on the phone, said he believed his son was in a classroom. District spokeswoman Tracy Clark said board professionals are now working to find the best alternative for the boy, including a possibility of placing him in a school -- or center, as the district calls them -- equipped to deal with students with behavioral problems.
"That little boy will be successful in a general education classroom with the right supports," Walford said.
She said her own son, Zachary, had very similar behavioral problems in elementary school as the child at Oriole and was improperly secluded at times, even placed in a padded cell and Baker Acted. She said once she got involved and began getting the help from the school system that was available, there was a huge turnaround. Today, Zachary is an honor student and on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout.
"We have to hold people accountable. We have to hold the ugly things to the light, which you're doing now," she told Norman. "But remember, there is a solution. There's always a solution."
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