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Parents: Resources, Not Criminal Charges, Needed for Students With Autism

(Updated 5-17--A Racine judge dismissed the criminal complaint after ruling that the defendant is not competent to proceed.) 

(WGTD)---Mia Ashmus believes that if Racine Unified was better equipped to deal with kids who've been diagnosed with autism her son wouldn’t have been sitting in court last week facing criminal charges for allegedly assaulting two staff members.

18 year-old Kenzo Pritchard was charged with disorderly conduct and battery for lashing out at a teacher at Racine Alternative Education and a one-on-one aide who’d been assigned to work with him since the start of the school year.

The development mortified Ashmus, whose been battling for years to secure the best treatment and outcomes possible for her autistic son.

At 6’ 3” and 260 lbs., Kenzo’s size belies his fragile mental state. “He does have a variety of behaviors that will impede his learning and that of others but if properly taken care of he can thrive,” she said in a phone conversation this week with a reporter.  

According to the criminal complaint, Kenzo grabbed hold of the head of the 63 year-old classroom teacher and wouldn’t let go. An officer assigned to the school said he saw the woman come out of her classroom “with a terrified look on her face, visibly shaking, with redness to her face, neck and ears.”

The 60 year-old male aide said he, too, was assaulted about a month later, and said at the time the report was taken there’d been several other incidents as well.

In fairness, Ashmus admits that both the RAE principal and classroom teacher had warned her that the school wasn’t prepared to handle someone like Kenzo, but they all agreed to give it a go. For one thing, Kenzo could potentially be subject to bullying by other students in the room if she needed to step away, the teacher told Ashmus. 

In February or March, Kenzo had transferred into RAE from Horlick High School where he started acting out after Christmas break, according to Ashmus. Up until then, things appeared to have been going relatively well following a six-month-long stint at a treatment facility in Madison.

The experts there altered the set of prescription drugs that Kenzo had been taking in a bid to improve his behavior, and were pleased with his overall progress, according to Ashmus.

Ashmus also had high praise for Racine Unified’s team of autism specialists, but thinks the expertise doesn’t always flow down to the front lines. “There’s always a reason for Kenzo's behavior,” Ashmus said. “I think that’s really the bottom line, and the bottom line for many of these children. It’s not just aggressive behavior for nothing. I think that’s what’s difficult for people to understand.”

Ashmus believes the male aide, who followed Kenzo from Horlick to RAE, could’ve been better trained and may not have been the perfect match for her son. Such aides are among the lowest paid people in any school district.

Racine Unified’s special education practices recently came under scrutiny after complaints were filed with the state Department of Public Instruction.

Struggling to hold her composure in the phone call, Ashmus said she hopes things will improve for her son and others like him. “I just can’t sit by and let this happen to him,” she said. “I think more people should understand that this is happening—this is happening to us and it’s likely to happen to more people and more children because of the lack of training and empathy.”

Rates of autism have been on the rise in recent years. The experts differ on the cause.

 In court last week, a competency hearing was scheduled for Kenzo and he was ordered to stay away from Racine Unified.

Ashmus reports that she's currently exploring alternatives to Racine Unified, and that Kenzo is doing better.

Another perspective is offered by Kenzo's maternal grandparents, Kris and Mark Ashmus. "Kenzo is an amazing young man that so many people just don't or can't understand," they wrote in an email. "We as grandparents never knew what autism meant and then there was Kenzo...his abilities far exceed his disabilities, though they may be hard for most to see."