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Continued: Mentally troubled students overwhelm schools

  • Article by: JEFFREY MEITRODT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 21, 2013 - 7:26 AM

“Something really bad is happening,” he told her.

Flames crawled up the wall from his bed. Gianni, who has trouble sleeping, had found leftover sparklers in a closet and a lighter in her purse.

Shameka put out the fire before it spread beyond Gianni’s room. But their landlord evicted them.

“Gianni can’t take responsibility for his actions. He is not mentally stable enough to do that,” said Shameka, who decided to speak out about her son’s mental health history because she believes the state and the school system have failed him. She gave the Star Tribune access to his psychiatric and school records and authorized caregivers and others to discuss his case.

Gianni’s odyssey through Minnesota’s public school system shows how children with mental health issues can be lost in a system geared to help students with obvious physical and cognitive handicaps. Their care comes from a patchwork of services through schools, state and local agencies and private insurance — often with little coordination.

“Who is responsible for what?” asked Curt Haats, chief financial officer for Hennepin County Human Services. “You have a lot of parties that want to do good, but they all have some piece of the accountability. If everyone is accountable, then no one is.”


17 different drugs

Gianni looks like a normal teenager, but he is not. Over the years he has been diagnosed with psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder and pervasive development disorder. He and his 4-year-old brother both have autism.

“People think I’m not a right person, and autism is just an excuse for me to get into trouble, but it’s not,” Gianni said. “It is something deep inside of me. It’s been there for 15 years.”

Gianni was repeatedly suspended from kindergarten for outbursts. Doctors began medicating him in first grade, when he was diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders and began receiving special education services.

Since then, he’s been on 17 different drugs, including antipsychotic medications and mood stabilizers. Reports show the drugs often helped him do better in school, but some produced frightening side effects.

When he was 9, Gianni spent three weeks in the psych unit at Fairview Riverside Hospital after he began talking on an imaginary phone and “voicing homicidal threats against his family and others,” according to a hospital report. Doctors blamed the hallucinations on a change in medications.

When he returned to Minneapolis schools, he was removed from mainstream classes and put in a room with other students with autism. He received no mental health services at school but was seeing a psychiatrist through Shameka’s insurance plan.

The next year, Mr. Angry became a regular companion.

In April 2009, Gianni wandered up to a neighbor working on a truck in his driveway. Gianni picked up a hammer and hit the man in the back of the head.

“He didn’t say hi, bye or anything,” the man told police. He required seven stitches but sustained no serious injuries.

Gianni could not explain what provoked the attack and cried when an officer pressed him for answers. He later told a therapist that his left hand “just did it” because “Mr. Angry” told him to.

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  • Gianni, who has a history of psychosis, often slips into a fantasy world, talking to himself and battling imaginary enemies.

  • Three weeks after Gianni set the fire at school, Shameka told her mother that he would have to stay in juvenile detention until a judge determined whether he was mentally competent to face arson charges.

  • While incarcerated, Gianni wrote this letter to a county prosecutor, saying “i’m a really good kid” who sometimes does things that are “extreamly wrong.” He asked to go home with his mother because “I am always safe at home.”

  • Gianni’s relatives welcomed him home May 23 after he spent 37 days in juvenile detention.

  • More than three weeks after his 15th birthday, Gianni was finally able to have fun with a family party at Water Park of America.

  • Gianni retreated to his bedroom to escape the noisy party held the night he was released from jail.

  • Alone in his back yard, Gianni battled imaginary foes while relatives inside the house celebrated his homecoming.

  • After a judge kept Gianni in jail, Shameka Griffin arrived home about the time her son usually got off the school van.

  • Shameka walked with Gianni into the Anoka County courthouse for a hearing on her son’s mental competence.

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