Shawnie Halajko lasted about a year and a half in the public school system.

As a young child with severe autism, his parents were already concerned about Shawnie’s safety before he entered school in Seekonk in 2006. At just 5 years old, Shawnie had already been hospitalized for eating hazardous objects like light bulbs and tacks and was becoming violent at home, unable to regulate his own behavior.

Shane and Cheryl Halajko met with school officials to ensure they could handle Shawnie’s behavior, keeping both him and others safe. They said they were, and that they weren’t seeing the same child his parents described seeing at home.

But then they did.

On his last day in public school in October 2007, Shawnie urinated and smeared his feces across an entire school hallway during a moment of distress. It was an act of self-defense, Shane Halajko said in an interview. By also covering himself in feces, Shawnie figured nobody would restrain him.

Shawnie had just been hospitalized for self-injurious behaviors at home. During that hospitalization, his parents had another individual education plan meeting with school officials to once again express doubt that public school was the right fit for Shawnie. Now the school agreed it wasn’t.

He was transferred to a collaborative school for children with low incidence disabilities even though the Halajkos favored a residential program, where they felt he could receive proper medical attention and education from staff trained to manage severe cognitive disabilities.

The collaborative school claimed they had “seen it all,” Shane Halajko said. But within the first year, Shawnie was restrained 60 times, with one day resulting in 10 incidents. They asked Halajko to be available during school hours. On several occasions, Shawnie was escorted out of the building restrained in a sleeping bag.

He was discharged from the school two years later. As he started to get bigger and stronger, his behaviors became harder to manage.

This was repeated for nearly 10 years: Shawnie would be admitted to a program and discharged just a few years later after dozens of incident reports, and the Halajkos would be under pressure to find a new program that would admit him on short notice.

It took six years before public school officials even approved residential placement, and then another five years to find the right fit, because the family didn’t have any say in the matter. All throughout, Shawnie was in and out of the hospital because of behavioral flare-ups, not receiving the educational rights he’s entitled to by law, Halajko said.

In 2017, Shawnie was accepted into the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, where, his parents say, he has thrived. He is finally receiving an education. He’s off the medication used for nearly a decade to try and subdue him. In his four years at the program, there have been no elopements, no hospitalizations and no calls for police assistance — frequent occurrences in the decade prior.

At 20, Shawnie now visits home on the weekends, where he loves swimming, shopping and dancing to Kidz Bop music with his sister Olivia and brother Shane Jr. He knows the order of every track on every album, and will tell you if he thinks the song is too inappropriate for the brand that produces family-friendly covers of popular pop songs. He is easily lovable and wraps you in a big hug, Halajko said.

Now, finally feeling secure in Shawnie’s placement, the family is advocating for changes to Massachusetts law that they say will protect both families and some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable constituents.

“Shawnie’s Bill,” or HD. 358, would guarantee residential placement for children with intellectual disabilities within 30 days of approval.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Steven Howitt, R-Seekonk, creates an emergency fund for timely placement and gives final authority to parents as to which facility their child will attend.

The bill has shuffled through three legislative sessions without coming up for a vote, but Halajko and Howitt hope this year it will get the recognition it deserves.

“The length of time they took — that delay hurt Shawnie,” Halajko said. “And when we finally got a green light, we got little to no input. I feel that parents should have a say. It took an emotional, physical and financial toll. It drains you. I didn’t realize this was going where it was going. But after some 400 incident reports for Shawnie alone, I realized, I have to do something.”

Howitt said the bill will help families and children who “don’t know where else to go.”

“It was brought to my attention by Shawn’s father, what had happened and why his child was stuck in limbo,” Howitt said. “It seems like these are people who fall between the cracks because other people are not fully understanding what the issues are. This brings that to light, and hopefully we can bring it forward in the next session.”

Shawnie’s long road

The Halajkos’ experience in the system is long and storied.

After he was discharged from the collaborative school, Shawnie participated in an outpatient program run by Bradley Hospital in Providence. In 2011, a social worker officially recommended residential placement. Halajko was nervous the public school department, which holds authority over placements, would still deny their request. They had before. So he asked Howitt to accompany the family to a meeting and advocate on their behalf. With Howitt there, the school agreed to move ahead.

But finding a placement proved difficult. The family wanted Shawnie close to home because of medical issues and a recommendation toward a facility with a low staff-to-client ratio.

Shawnie was accepted to Amego Inc., a residential program in Attleboro, and the family was confident in their programming. But the school department denied the placement without providing a reason, Halajko said. And under current state law, the school department had the final say.

Seekonk Superintendent Rich Drolet, who did not head the district at the time, did not respond to a Sun Chronicle request for comment on Shawnie’s case or questions about the school department’s general criteria for selecting residential placements.

At the time, Halajko said the search for another placement dragged on because many programs denied Shawnie and his severe behavior.

All the while, he remained hospitalized at Bradley Hospital for about three months, unaware of why he was being kept there.

Finally in February 2012, Shawnie was admitted to Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover, about 90 minutes away from home. The family was hesitant. The program was farther away than they had hoped and sat along the busy intersection of Route 53, a safety concern as Shawnie ran away often. The Halajkos were also uncomfortable with the center’s use of medication to manage behaviors, but reluctantly agreed, hoping it would bring some relief.

“What choice did we have?” Halajko said.

But in 2015, they learned of back-to-back incidents that resulted in multiple hospitalizations, elopements (when a resident leaves a secure area), assaults on property and staff and the need for ongoing police support for nearly a year to control Shawnie.

On one occasion, he broke a staff member’s finger. On another, after police brought Shawnie to the hospital after one incident, he attacked another staffer who attempted to drive him back in the center van alone.

On every occasion, the center said they were prepared to keep Shawnie and others safe. Halajko disagreed.

“For a typical child not as big as Shawn, not as quick as Shawn, and not as smart as Shawn, they had a lot to offer,” he said. “But they were not equipped for this.

“I just don’t understand why, as a parent, I need to be the one questioning that.”

Asked about Shawnie’s experience, Cardinal Cushing Centers President and CEO Michelle Markowitz said the center does not comment on individual experiences with the program, but said her staff is committed to supporting students “often under challenging circumstances.”

In 2016, the center discharged Shawnie without warning, Halajko said. At the time, Shawnie was at Fuller Hospital, so heavily medicated he could barely speak, and with nowhere else to go.

Halajko felt abandoned.

“They should’ve done anything they had to do, put 10 staff around him to keep him safe, until we had another option,” he said.

Markowitz did not respond to questions from The Sun Chronicle about the criteria and procedures used to admit or discharge students.

Halajko said while the family scrambled to find another placement, Shawnie remained for 72 days at Fuller, which specializes in caring for people with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Halajko says Shawnie wasn’t attending school during this time.

In late 2016, he was released to the Groden Center in Providence. The center had an intake process that introduced new residents into a smaller program with a high staff ratio for an observation period before they joined a larger group home in the facility, Halajko said.

Shawnie was released into the group home after less than a month, despite records showing nearly 140 self-injurious and aggressive behaviors to others within that time. Shortly after, the center’s nurse wrote an email to the Halajkos and other staff saying she did not find his placement at Groden appropriate, and asked for more detailed plans to keep Shawnie and other students safe.

For the next four months, he was in and out of the hospital. In one incident, Halajko said Shawnie threw a tantrum lasting almost four hours, locking himself into the center’s minibus, where he smashed a window, tore out cords and wires, put a plastic bag over his head and ingested cleaning chemicals before staff called police.

CEO Michael Pearis declined to comment for this story, citing client confidentiality.

The Halajko family fought for Shawnie to transfer to his current placement at the Judge Rotenberg Center, where so far, they say he has thrived in a setting that deals with a population of people with severe intellectual disabilities.

The Rotenberg Center has drawn widespread criticism for its use of electric shock devices in treatment, a practice banned nationally by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year.

But Halajko said Shawnie was not undergoing shock treatment, and simply benefited from the high staff ratio and structure of the program. Halajko said center staff seem to be well trained in managing Shawnie’s behavior, which, when he is out of sync emotionally, can become dangerous.

“Shawnie is now becoming a young, respectful man with a bright future,” Halajko said.

But it took too a long time for him to get there.

“What happened with Shawnie — when you look at his multiple hospitalizations during preschool until he got where he needed to be, there’s no way he’s getting an education,” Halajko said. “His rights are not being served. It didn’t take a lot of common sense (to see) that the public school could not handle his behavior. What I see is all the school had to do was just see the amount of hospitalization and say let’s be proactive. But all of this happened because instead of him being in the right placement from the start, people were trying to fit him in the shoes of every other kid.”

Halajko, who now volunteers as a family advocate for others facing similar situations, said many of the parents he works with don’t understand their rights, where to go, or what to do.

And not all situations are the same.

Helping other families

Another local family enlisted Halajko’s help in advocating to keep their child with autism in a public school inclusion classroom with the proper support.

The family asked to remain anonymous while they try to resolve the issue through several complaints to state agencies.

But the 5-year-old boy’s mother said while he is high-functioning, officials at the local school labeled him “disruptive” and tried to push the family into a separate special education classroom.

“I didn’t feel like that was a good fit for him,” she said. “I thought he would copy other behavior. I asked the school to collect more data and work with us, and never really got it. How can I help or see why my child is doing that if I’m not getting anything?”

A state mediation led to an extended evaluation in an inclusion classroom with a one-on-one paraprofessional, but last fall, the paraprofessional privately shared some concerns that put the family on high alert.

Now the mother doubts whether her son’s teacher understands how to work with a child with autism.

The paraprofessional claimed the teacher repeatedly changed the boy’s schedule without warning, hid objects meant to help him calm down — using them as a reward instead of a coping mechanism — removed his one-on-one support when he started to have an incident, and asked the paraprofessional to add behaviors to his chart that she didn’t observe. Rumors about the boy among other staff also have created privacy concerns.

“It just makes us very uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t feel he’s safe there.”

She turned to Howitt for help, who referred her to Halajko. The family filed complaints with the education department and Department of Children and Families, but until she met Halajko, the mother felt like her hands were tied.

She pulled her child from the school in January and is keeping him at home with state services while she and Halajko advocate for placement in another public school district with one-on-one support before the boy starts kindergarten next fall.

“What else are you going to do?” she asked. “Keep your son at home?”

Not too long ago, that was exactly the case.

Doreen Arcus from the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Autism Research and Education said part of the reason these stories are so common is because special education is still relatively new in the history of public education.

The first public school was established in 1635, but it would take until 1973 for the nation to pass a law known as the Free Appropriate Public Education Act, which required schools to provide an education to all students, regardless of disability.

“It’s not like we have a long practice of doing things right,” Arcus said. “It used to be these children would be excluded. It doesn’t mean Shawnie’s experience is any better. But it takes years for those kinds of laws to filter through schools and places.”

And there is still much change to be had, Arcus said.

She has a long history with special education, once working in and consulting with schools herself. Her primary research as a psychology professor focuses on how parents of and students with disabilities navigate school transitions and the beliefs of educators about those students.

In reviewing Shawnie’s Bill, she saw areas for progress.

One major advantage for Arcus is the plan to create emergency funding for residential placements.

She said leaving school districts with the task of funding residential placements created stigma that children with disabilities are “taxing the system.”

“Sadly, sometimes it has been said that that child won’t be able to succeed anyways,” Arcus said.

Providing special education services is more expensive than a typical education, and for public schools that are already underfunded, it has created another burden on their budget.

“The cost is always there,” she said. “I think it’s important to have multiple agencies that are concerned with multiple aspects of the education and well-being of that child share the cost.”

Arcus also noted some benefits in giving parents more of a voice in the placement process.

Within the history of special education, she said, it has always been parents at the forefront of advocating for more rights and reform, leading to a better quality of life for their children.

“It’s those parents who see the evidence of what happens when things don’t go well,” she said.

The IEP process was meant to give parents more say, but Arcus said not all parents are comfortable or understand the voice they have in the placement of their child. Not all students with autism need a residential placement, and there are students with other intellectual disabilities who could benefit from them as well.

But Arcus said the priority of individualized education for any of these students should first be to secure an appropriate setting that provides the services they need, and then to maintain continuity of that setting.

“Anything we can do that would reduce the need for added changes is going to add to the quality of life and outcome for that child,” she said. “But you also would not want to discount services a placement can’t provide for continuity. You’d rather the interruptions than stay in a placement that is no longer optimal for you.”

Shawnie’s constant upheaval from programs exemplified that, and provided reasoning for the changes his family is advocating for, Arcus said.

“Shawnie’s experience is clear evidence that we need something more,” she said. “That story shouldn’t happen to anybody.”

For Halajko, it was a learning experience that happened in the moment — day by day and year by year — and one that he hopes to prevent others from having to go through.

It was one that came with its own costs. To his family, and to Shawnie.

He tried keeping Shawnie home as long as he could, renovating his bedroom as close as he could to a residential setting — removing outlets and excess furniture, replacing windows with Plexiglass and installing a secure door.

But he also had two other children to protect, and wondered if keeping Shawnie at home would mean neglecting the needs and safety of the other two.

In turn, he said, it was Shawnie who was put on a path of suffering — the Halajkos having little say in his future. Shawnie’s Bill would change that.

“We need this bill,” Halajko said. “While we’re speaking right now, this is happening to kids all over the state. We need more overwatch.

“Shawnie is autistic and mentally delayed. But he’s strong, smart and verbal. And because he was so strong and verbal, he survived what he went through. So many other children wouldn’t be able to tell their story.”

Kayla Canne can be reached at 508-236-0336, or on Twitter at @SCNAttleboro.

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