9 Investigates: Volusia County parents up in arms, say autistic children treated like criminals

by: Nancy Alvarez Updated:

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. - Nine-year-old Xavier Shellman is autistic but when you look at his student record, with seven police reports and a felony charge for striking a teacher, he looks more like a delinquent.

His parents, Alfred and Terra Shellman said they feel that’s the way Volusia County Schools has treated their son – as a criminal, not a boy with a disability.

“His behaviors are a manifestation of his disabilities, so it’s not like they didn’t know,” Terra Shellman said. “They knew this.”

“Our kids are being criminalized for their disabilities and it’s not right,” Alfred Shellman said.

The Shellmans, along with numerous other parents, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and are requesting an investigation into how the school district allocates millions of dollars meant for training and programs for special needs students.

“None of these children are bad children, these are disabled children,” said Katie Kelly, the head of the Child’s Rights Unit for Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. “So with appropriate supports and services, they make incredible progress.”

Dori McCabee has a 9-year-old daughter who is autistic, deaf and mute.

Hayden’s disabilities and needs are detailed in an “individual education plan” in her student records, but her outbursts have still led to multiple suspensions from school.

“It’s not punishing her, it’s not teaching her a lesson, because she doesn’t understand,” Dori McCabee said.

Anthony Giddens said his daughter is proof that the right program can help an autistic child excel, even if it took three schools and four years to find.

“They’re not listening to our kids,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned as a single parent is we teach our kids but also your kids teach you.”

When contacted by Channel 9 for comment, Volusia County Schools said in a statement that it cannot comment on any student-specific matters or threats of litigation.

Eleven families are currently part of the complaint against eight elementary schools in Volusia County.

Schools included in the complaint are:

Pine Trails Elementary

River Springs Middle School

Woodward Avenue Elementary

Holly Hill Elementary

South Daytona Elementary

Palm Terrace Elementary

Tomoka Elementary

Sunrise Elementary