Amy Larsen embraces her 11-year-old son. Larsen says she has been dealing uncooperative school district since her twin son and daughter were diagnosed with dysgraphia and anxiety disorder, respectively. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com
AMERICAN FALLS — Few things are scarier than facing the fear of gun violence in your child’s elementary school. But Amy Larsen says that has become a frightening reality for her and her family.
Larsen also says she has been fighting uphill with the entire American Falls education system to get her twins needed educational support.
For two years, Larsen has been locked in a battle with J.R. Simplot Elementary School and American Falls School District 381. And it started when her son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a disorder under the dyslexia umbrella.
Larsen says the school and district have not provided her son with the necessary tools and assistance he needs to learn, as laid out in his individualized education program (IEP). But things only got worse, she added, when several threats from another student, including of self-harm and gun violence, went unchecked.
Now, Larsen sends her fifth-graders to school with a classmate she says has threatened to shoot up the school, bring drugs to class and hurt their teacher. And she doesn’t believe the school system is protecting her kids.
“I’m scared for them,” Larsen said. “It’s fear, it’s disbelief. You can’t explain the feeling when you know that your kids are going to school in fear and you’re thinking, ‘When am I going to get that call?’”
Amy Larsen watches as her children walk down the street. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com
Suicidal remarks lead to threats of violence
According to extensive documentation that Larsen compiled and provided to EastIdahoNews.com, the threats began on Feb. 19, 2021. Along with a detailed timeline she says includes all events that have taken place over the past two-plus years, Larsen has collected and documented nearly every correspondence she has shared with the school and district — in the forms of meeting recordings and printed emails.
Her son and daughter told her on Feb. 22 last year that a classmate had informed the children that they were going to commit suicide and simulated cutting her own throat with a pair of scissors. She also claimed to have access to fentanyl pills.
Larsen said her kids reported the claim to their teacher that day, which she believed was the proper response.
After discussing the incident with her then-fourth graders, she explained the importance of being supportive of their friend. As she said, “You don’t know what (they’re) going through.”
The children reported another incident involving the same classmate on March 2.
Larsen said the classmate told her daughter that they were going to “boil their teacher and eat her.” Larsen immediately contacted the school and says she was told by Principal Chris Torgeson that he would personally discuss the matter with the other student.
Soon after, the same classmate began bullying her children, enlisting help from a couple of other classmates, according to Larsen.
For weeks, the kids returned from school on an almost daily basis asking to be removed from the school. Both children reported physical and mental anguish brought on by, what they called, “the wrath” of the original classmate.
The bullying directed at Larsen’s son had much to do with his disability, she says. He reported being called derogatory slurs and was ridiculed as being “gay” because of the way he talks.
As the bullying continued, Larsen made regular complaints to Torgeson — showing documentation of those email conversations to EastIdahoNews.com. Nothing was ever handled though, she said.
Eventually, according to Larsen, the principal grew tired of the constant back-and-forth and told Larsen’s children to stop reporting everything that happened at school to their mother. She requested an immediate meeting with the principal.
She claims he looked at her daughter at the meeting and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to be home-schooled.”
EastIdahoNews.com made several attempts to contact School Board Chairman Kamren Koompin and Superintendent Randy Jensen for this story, but we never received a response. Torgeson did speak with EastIdahoNews.com on the phone and said the statement about Larsen’s daughter going to another school is a misunderstanding.
“That was months ago, and she’s telling you that out of context,” he said. “You’re not getting the whole story, and that is not in context.”
Torgeson said he could not discuss the conversation or provide context because the meeting was confidential and involved a student at his school. He added that he believed the situation had been handled by the school board.
“As far as I was concerned, we took care of the issues that were made available and we were made aware of to the best of our ability,” he said. “To my knowledge, the school board handled it the way they felt appropriate.”
A mental health provider who has worked with Larsen’s kids spoke with EastIdahoNews.com. They asked us not to use their name as they are worried about losing their license for speaking publicly about their clients, but Larsen authorized them to speak.
The counselor is worried about the children’s safety.
“We risk them being impacted by a relational trauma, which can result in some grave circumstances,” the therapist said. “I’m talking depression symptoms, I’m talking anxiety symptoms, I’m talking suicidal ideation.”
The therapist is worried that continued physical and mental abuse can have a lasting impact and create a standard for how the children interact with others throughout their lifetime.
Out of such fear, the therapist filed a protection request with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Child Protective Services. With Larsen’s approval, EastIdahoNews.com requested documentation from the Department of Health but was denied.
The bullying came to a head in May when Larsen says the bullying student told Larsen’s children that they had access to a gun and would bring it to school to shoot them and their teacher.
This was around the same time as the Rigby Middle School shooting, and Larsen said the school and district dismissed the threat as a joke.
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Torgeson said that he would never knowingly leave a student at his school unsafe, but added that he did not hear the threat.
“I respond to information that I hear,” he said. “If I don’t hear the threat, I don’t respond to it.”
Torgeson did also allude to the possibility that mental health issues were involved.
EastIdahoNews.com attempted to get information about the incident from the school district but did not receive a response.
Amy Larsen and daughter | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com
As Larsen said, her son was diagnosed with dysgraphia in 2019. She does have reason to believe that he falls on the autism spectrum but has not had him tested.
According to the therapist, dysgraphia creates difficulties in spelling and connecting thoughts. The disorder can manifest outwardly in illegible handwriting and poor spelling. Larsen’s son specifically cannot see math problems in order.
Something as simple as graphing paper helps him immensely, both the therapist and Larsen say. And according to his IEP, graphing paper should be provided by the school, and an assistant should be made available. But Larsen says the school and district deny the existence of learning difficulties altogether.
They do so because, as Ashley Brittain Aven, a health and education family advocate with The Brittain Group, said, Idaho is the last remaining state that does not include dyslexia and similar disorders in the state education plan. Therefore, educators and administrators are not properly trained in assisting students with disorders like dyslexia, dysgraphia and dysphasia.
And not only does the state education board not have a plan in place to assist districts, it does little to help independent districts or the parents within them. Larsen said she went to the state board on more than one occasion looking for help and was sent away, told each district is governed autonomously — meaning they create their own guidelines and follow their own rules.
Larsen went so far as to send her documentation of the many incidents to the state. She says the documents were returned unopened.
Brittain Aven, a barred attorney out of state who provides pro bono advocacy work for families in states like Idaho, confirmed the troubles that exist in an autonomously governed education system. She said that she has encountered similar issues in many of Idaho’s smaller school districts.
“It’s a systemic issue across the entire state of Idaho,” she said. “Because Idaho is local control, the state Department of Education isn’t providing resources to these smaller districts.”
But assistance on that front may be on the immediate horizon.
A bill is due to be signed by Gov. Brad Little in the coming weeks that would add dyslexia assistance and training to the state’s education plan, and create statewide guidelines for independent districts.
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“If we’re going to focus all these resources on reading, which we absolutely should, those kids that have dyslexia, no matter what degree, it’s important that we’re not discriminating against them, and more importantly, that we’re giving them the extra, and the special resources,” Little told EastIdahoNews.com.
According to his research, Little added, students with dyslexia and similar disorders are fully capable of leading normal lives, given assistance early on. The therapist agrees, as does Brittain Aven, who added that about 20% of Americans have such disorders.
Therein lies the problem, however. Because the state has not created a plan for combatting dyslexia issues, those issues, in many instances, are not being approached properly.
According to Brittain Aven, due to these disorders, around 5% to 7% of all students face never being literate because they are not provided needed assistance.
Larsen does not want her son to become a part of that statistic, and she worries the entire communication program within the school is totally broken. While most schools have information such as IEPs filed and provided to new teachers each year, J.R. Simplot does not seem to pass such information along, according to Larsen, and she’s left to explain the challenges each year to a new teacher, and face the same battles on a yearly basis.
Larsen said that she eventually removed her children from a computer class after their teacher told Larsen that she had no interest in reading the IEP.
Those issues trickle down from the top of the school’s administration, according to Larsen and Brittain Aven.
During a recent Zoom meeting that included Larsen and advocates, Brittain Aven says Torgeson grew aggressively aggravated by guidance advocates. At one point, Larsen described, the principal yelled at everyone in attendance.
“It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever, ever attended,” Brittain Aven said.
The reaction was in response to a trio of concerned representatives of the dyslexia-dysgraphia learning community telling him that his current program did not help students with such disorders, Larsen says.
Larsen believes the current American Falls education system is beyond saving. To salvage the district, she believes wholesale change must be made — starting at the top.
“I guarantee it — if you get a superintendent that’s not from here, that isn’t tied to people here, this whole school district would be different,” she said.
Larsen worries that small-town American Falls cannot provide administrative candidates who aren’t connected to those currently in the positions.
Bullying, she added, has been an issue within the district since her children’s grandmother was a student in the same schools. Those same issues persist today, beyond her children — as evidenced by posts she showed EastIdahoNews.com in a private Facebook group for parents within the school district.
In the short term, Larsen has consulted the therapist, who spoke with EastIdahoNews.com about options. Together, they contacted National Association for People Against Bullying.
Larsen plans to start a “Cool To Be Kind” club. But, due to the lack of support she has received at her current school, she has decided to wait until her children are in middle school next year to make that move.
As for IEP assistance, Brittain Aven believes currently supported legislation would help immensely. As she said, the benefit to being the final state in the union to draft such legislation means that Idaho has the advantage of knowing everything that worked and everything that didn’t in other states.
In his defense, Larsen said that Torgeson did go against school restrictions to allow her children to wear smartwatches they use to text their mother at school, alleviating some of the anxiety this whole issue has created.
Still, Larsen believes change is absolutely necessary.
“Until the administration that’s here is gone, nothing’s going to change,” she said.
The post Parent accuses school district of ignoring bullying, disregarding education plan, dismissing a gun threat appeared first on East Idaho News.