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Continued: Rising special ed cases are huge cost to Minnesota schools

To understand the complexities of special education, consider Orion Setchell.

At 17, Orion — whose handicaps include autism and cerebral palsy — has attended schools in five districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin. His mother, Shelbi Setchell, battled administrators at almost every stop, starting when he was stuck with a “washroom” for a classroom in first grade.

She said the disputes had one thing in common: the amount of money spent on her son.

“In all of his other school districts, that is all they ever complained about,” Setchell said. “ ‘We spend too much money, we spend too much money.’ ”

She knows her son, who weighs 185 pounds and often slurs his words, can be difficult. His hearing is hypersensitive, and he can turn violent when surprised by loud noises or if he feels threatened. He has no school-age friends. He’s been invited to just one birthday party in his entire life, and it was a disaster.

Orion started pulling hair and pinching other students in third grade, after he was repeatedly bullied by another student in his special education classroom.

His problems multiplied when he made the switch to a Shakopee junior high school in the fall of 2010.

is new teachers, unfamiliar with tactics that had worked to calm him in the past, tried a different approach, according to a state report. If he was late for class or fell behind on his schedule, which happened frequently, he was denied privileges. The use of sound-blocking headphones, which Orion wears constantly, was sharply restricted.

Orion retaliated with aggressive behavior that included screaming, pulling hair, hitting and kicking. He was suspended for five days after slapping staff members nine times. The assaults and suspensions continued for months, then Shakopee officials banned him from the school and recommended he be moved to a more restrictive educational environment.

His mother responded by filing a formal complaint with the state, which typically investigates about 80 alleged infractions of a disabled student’s rights each year. The state education department determined Shakopee officials committed multiple violations of state and federal laws by not responding properly to Orion’s escalating aggressiveness, according to the 2012 investigation.

“If my son had stayed at Shakopee, I’m afraid he would have ended up in jail or dead because of the way they were treating him, and the way he felt about himself,” Setchell said.

Shakopee officials declined to comment.

Despite her victory, Setchell reluctantly came to the same conclusion that Shakopee did: Her son needed a school that specialized in educating the most disabled children. So she moved to Robbinsdale, believing her son’s behavior would eventually trigger a referral to Intermediate District 287, one of three regional school districts that focus on the needs of the disabled in the Twin Cities.

“I’ve seen the same thing at every public school,” Setchell said. “They lack education. They lack patience. They lack a desire to learn about their students. That’s why my son can’t be at a regular school.”

Orion now attends the North Education Center, a $35 million facility that opened last fall. It is the envy of special education directors around the state.

Compared to noisy, makeshift classrooms used by special ed students in many parts of the state, Orion’s new classroom is state of the art. He has his own timeout room where he can relax under a revolving mood light. He keeps the light green, his favorite color.

His carpeted classroom contains a swing and a rocking chair for working off excess energy. The smartboard includes a video game Orion designed with his teacher — a variation on Concentration using corporate logos, one of his obsessions.

For occupational therapy, Orion rides a customized tricycle (starting price: $1,980) down the hall built extra wide so two trikes can easily pass. Staffers keep tabs on him by checking any of the 131 camera lenses mounted in 41 locations throughout the building.

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