EducationNews & Opinion

Mom Demands Charter School Address Son’s Special Needs Struggles

Superintendent, principal and teacher at Lake Norman school allegedly shamed boy for behavior due to his mental health conditions

A headshot of Danielle Farmer
Danielle Farmer, mother of a former Lake Norman Charter Elementary School student. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Danielle Farmer will always remember April 25, 2023, as the day her son first voiced suicidal ideations to her.

It happened on the way home from Lake Norman Charter Elementary School (LNCES), where the 8-year-old had spent the last half of his second-grade school year and nearly his entire third-grade year struggling mightily due to mental health conditions.

Matthew Farmer* had been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and sensory processing disorder. After nearly 18 months of back and forth between his mother, teachers and school administration — time that included allegations that one of his teachers had publicly shamed him in front of his classmates —  Matthew told his mom he didn’t want to be alive anymore.

“He got home and he just started crying. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car yet and he was crying, bawling. So we just sat in the car,” Farmer told Queen City Nerve, pausing as tears welled up and she became emotional in her recollection.

“I had to explain to him that if he left, he would be letting them win and how sad I would be and how sad daddy would be. So he promised me that if he ever felt like that, he was going to say something.”

With plans to enroll Matthew elsewhere now that he’s finished third grade, Danielle is speaking up in hopes that the lessons learned during her experience will force LNCES administration to rethink how they approach the treatment of children with special needs.

Allegations against Matthew’s third-grade English Language Arts teacher include bringing up his repeated bathroom trips — a symptom of his anxiety — in front of the class and repeatedly punishing him for behaviors that are known symptoms of his condition according to his 504 Plan, a plan created for students with special needs or disabilities to ensure they are not discriminated against or left to fall behind their classmates.

Farmer is now calling on the charter school to “clean house” by firing the superintendent, principal and the teacher she alleges shamed her son.

“The solution is not to have parents walk,” Farmer said. “The solution is not to pull the kids. The solution is to clean out the house a little bit and change the mentality because they have the possibility to be amazing.”

Farmer pointed to a letter from Quentin Powell, a licensed therapist with LifeStance Health that has been seeing Matthew, now 9 years old, for nearly 18 months now. In the letter, dated April 27, 2023, Powell confirmed that Matthew had been experiencing ideations of self-harm and asked that the charter school take action.

“I have become concerned that [Matthew] has begun to feel unsafe as the school year has progressed specifically with one teacher,” Powell wrote.

The therapist acknowledged Matthew’s behavioral issues, ranging from his struggles to stay on task to sudden and prolonged increases in energy.

“That does not mean [Matthew] should feel uncomfortable, even to the point of wanting to self-harm because it can be difficult to manage these symptoms in the classroom settings,” Powell wrote. “I feel that if [Matthew] is feeling this way, that maybe other students may also feel this way, but do not have the ability to speak up for themselves or have someone to speak up for them such as [Matthew] does. I encourage the staff at LNC to please take these concerns of safety for [Matthew] as seriously as they would for any other child in the school.”

The school did not act on Powell’s recommendation. When asked about the Powell letter, a spokesperson at LNCES said, “The school did consult with Mr. Powell whose professional opinion was not in line with or supportive of Ms. Farmer’s claims or demands.”

Though Powell could not discuss specifics about Matthew’s case, when asked to clarify about this consultation by Queen City Nerve, he responded, “I spoke with the school once after I wrote the letter. I told them what I thought would be best and they chose another route.”

The outside of Lake Norman Charter Elementary School
Lake Norman Charter Elementary School in Huntersville. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

For their part, school administration has denied any wrongdoing in Matthew’s case.

After Queen City Nerve reached out to the school with a request to interview someone in a leadership position, the school requested that we send questions over email instead, then responded to those questions with a statement, insisting that the school had “no interest in engaging in further dialog with the media as it relates to this matter.”

The statement read, in part, “The nature of the school environment demands that we routinely operate with numerous external factors present, whether they are supportive of our mission or not, and that we remain laser focused on cultivating an atmosphere where every student is encouraged and supported in their quest to reach their greatest potential, both academically and beyond.

“As such, we are skilled and accustomed to filtering out any distractions or diversions inconsistent or unsupportive of that goal and forging on, without bias, in the best interest of the student.”

The charter school instead blamed Farmer for “egregiously inappropriate and disruptive conduct” over the past school year, during which she was banned from the campus due to what the school called “explosive and threatening episodes” — the first time administration has taken such a measure.

Queen City Nerve has reviewed recordings of in-person meetings between Danielle, her husband and school administration that did sometimes break down into shouting matches. She said she was banned from campus for allegedly directing the middle finger at a school staff member in the school’s pick-up line, something she denies.

“I’m not going to do something like that, knowing how you’re going to react,” Danielle told Queen City Nerve. “I wouldn’t sink the ship of all the work that we’re trying to put in and be professional and then undo our steps to flip you off in the carpool line.”

Months of emails between Farmer and school administration reviewed by Queen City Nerve show a relatively cordial back and forth in which Farmer repeatedly asks for a meeting with teachers and school officials so as to create an Individual Education Plan for Matthew, which would implement more specific practices to help him succeed.

In an email from October 2022, LNCES principal Michelle Holland told Farmer that even considering Matthew’s IEP eligibility could take up to 90 days and that, “There are other students already in the process so they are ahead of [Matthew] in all that is involved in determining if a child does indeed have a disability. It is not a quick process.”

Holland added that she had sat in on Matthew’s ELA class and noticed that, though he was not creating disruption for other students, he did not follow along with a story that was read aloud nor did he participate in the following discussion.

Holland told Farmer that Matthew “would need to meet us halfway. He has to want to improve,” citing Holland’s past job as an exceptional children’s teacher for more than 12 years and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Special Education.

Farmer thought the email showed a misunderstanding of the urgency of Matthew’s case, eventually leading to his withdrawal, dissociation and self-harm ideations.

“This needs to be a safe place,” Farmer said. “If you remove that mentality, that fixed mindset that you’re already the best, it allows room to grow and actually become the best.”

Farmer said she wants to see the charter school remove Holland and Matthew’s ELA teacher from their positions by the start of the next school year to help ensure other children like Matthew aren’t met with the same apathy.

“Take away that need to not be challenged and put somebody in there that wants to be challenged because they might miss something, who are open and perceptive to the fact that there’s numerous ways to learn,” Farmer suggested.

“We’re not even cracking the book here on neurodivergence. When you block these kids, you’re missing what they’re capable of. And so that’s a big problem, but even despite that, you have big issues here where a child’s wanting to take his own life and you’re discrediting that. You said it was his perception. That’s not who we need in here taking care of these kids.”

UPDATE: Farmer has filed official complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the NC Department of Public Instruction regarding the school’s alleged violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its refusal to issue Matthew an Individualized Education Program. Since an original version of this story ran in print, Farmer has received follow-ups on both, and was told the state expects to wrap its investigation into her complaint sometime in July. Queen City Nerve will keep readers updated as that plays out. 

*Matthew’s first name has been changed to protect his identity.

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