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Boy’s Return to O.C. School Sparks Protests

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Six-year-old Jimmy Peters returned to Circle View Elementary School on Thursday as the campus erupted in conflict over whether the special-education student, deemed violent and disruptive by school officials, should be allowed to share a kindergarten classroom with mainstream students.

The day after a federal judge ordered the school to readmit Jimmy, he and his father were greeted by three dozen sign-waving parents from both sides of the issue who had camped out for three hours waiting to protest and support the child’s arrival after a 21-day absence.

At least six adults entered the classroom and removed their children when Jimmy and his father, Jim Peters, arrived on campus at 10:45 a.m. Other parents were keeping their children home as well, according to organizers of Thursday’s protest.

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Circle View Principal Dan Moss said 14 of the 31 children enrolled in the class did not attend school Thursday--12 because of Jimmy’s presence. Another 21 students in other grades were kept at home in protest as well, most of them siblings of children in Jimmy’s class, Moss said.

Three police officers were stationed on the school grounds to keep order as television and print reporters hovered just beyond a fence near Jimmy, who turned his back and munched a bag of potato chips in the midst of the commotion just beyond the playground fence.

“They’ve made him out to be a monster,” said Debbie Hoops, a parent of a special-education student in another school district, who was on hand to support Jimmy. “This is hysteria. Mass hysteria.”

But Jimmy’s detractors were equally adamant. “If we didn’t think our children were in danger, we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Pam Walker, who withdrew her child from Jimmy’s class Thursday.

A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday rejected the request of Huntington Beach’s Ocean View School District that Jimmy be indefinitely barred from the classroom, ruling that injuries he had allegedly caused other children and staff members were not serious enough to warrant his exclusion.

After filing the first lawsuit of its kind in Orange County on May 25, the school district had ordered Jimmy temporarily removed from his class, alleging that he had kicked and bitten other students and his teacher, and that he was disruptive to the learning environment.

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Before Thursday, Jimmy had been absent from school since May 19, when he was suspended for biting a teacher, his father said. Jimmy’s teacher and an instructional aide have both taken medical leave as a result of the stress of trying to teach Jimmy, the lawsuit alleges.

School officials have said they resorted to the lawsuit only after Jim Peters refused to voluntarily transfer his son to a special-education class. They have declined to reveal Jimmy’s disability classification, but said he has some characteristics found in autistic children.

Jim Peters, who acknowledges that his son is handicapped in communicating, disputes the allegations of violence and says his child is not autistic. He said the school district has been magnifying his son’s behavior problems, and he has hired an attorney to fight its efforts to keep Jimmy out of a mainstream classroom.

The child’s case has attracted widespread attention in Orange County, especially among parents and advocates for special-education students, who are increasingly demanding that their children be allowed to remain in mainstream classrooms, a movement known as “full inclusion.”

Jim Peters said the incident was typical of how the school district pits parents against parents.

“It discourages me,” he said. “This is a time for healing.”

“It’s really not the kids, it’s the parents,” he added.

School board President Tracy Pellman said trustees have never discussed Jimmy’s situation in detail, but she expressed sympathy for parents of his classmates.

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“I feel that not all students were considered in (U.S. District Judge Matthew Byrne’s) decision,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

Thursday’s demonstrations began hours before Jimmy arrived. By 7:30 a.m. a dozen parents were wielding signs saying “Safety Is the Issue” and “Honk for Support.” They stopped other parents who were dropping children off at the school and asked them to join the demonstration.

Their numbers grew quickly and it wasn’t long before the entrance to the kindergarten area of the 630-student school was dominated by the sound of car horns and the sight of picketing parents speaking to camera crews and radio reporters.

Peters and his attorney, Joan Honeycut, said they planned that the child would attend only the last hour of class, in hope that protests would die down by the time he arrived.

“We didn’t want Jimmy to walk through this mess,” Principal Moss agreed.

Jim Peters parked behind the school and brought Jimmy through the back entrance of the playground. Parents and reporters watched from just a few feet away as children greeted their classmate with waves and hellos. One child, 6-year-old Trevor Donnelly, gave him a welcoming hug.

But many parents reacted angrily.

“We’re very upset,” Pam Walker said. “And we’re here to bring attention to others who are unaware. We want them to know we are concerned about the rights of our children.”

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Walker said she has witnessed outbursts of violence by Jimmy and is worried about her child’s safety. “My child will not be in a classroom with Jimmy,” she said.

Karen Croft, who removed her kindergartner and second-grader from the school, said parents have worked unsuccessfully within the system throughout the school year. She said they needed an outlet for their anger and disappointment with the ruling.

“I’m trying to be fair,” she said. “I don’t want to make this a personal issue, and I don’t want to have a discussion with (Jim Peters) because I think I’ll cry.”

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Hoping to keep parents from pulling their children out of school, Moss offered parents a chance to view the classroom through a glass partition. But once Jimmy walked into the class, six parents filed in and emerged with their children, telling them this was their last day at the school.

A smaller number of parents welcomed Jimmy when he arrived. The half-dozen supporters, most of them parents from other schools who have children with special needs, said they had no plans to picket the school until they heard about planned protests.

“The other side is insane,” Theodora Parnavelas said. “I had to come out. They are not concerned with the real issues.”

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“What kind of role models are these parents to their kids?” Debbie Hoops asked. “They’re showing their kids what happens when you’re different.”

During his first day back, Jimmy spent 40 minutes in the classroom and then went for 20 minutes of speech therapy. Moss said he did not know how Jimmy spent the rest of the day, or how he adjusted to his classmates.

A special aide hired by the district to help him throughout the morning was on duty Thursday, Moss said. Jim Peters spent the entire session with his son and said he plans to attend school with Jimmy every day until the school year ends Thursday.

“Jimmy doesn’t know what is going on,” Peters said regarding the commotion. “We’ll have that talk tonight, I’m sure. He’s just glad to be back.”

* FULL INCLUSION: Court rulings help put special students in regular classes. A29

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