Mother Kills Self, Autistic Son, In Despair Over School Placement
On August 2, the bodies of psychiatrist Margaret Jensvold and her 13-year-old, Ben Barnhard, were found in their home in Kensington, Maryland, an upper-middle class suburb of Washington, D.C. Jensvold, a Johns Hopkins-educated psychiatrist specializing in women’s health who worked at Kaiser Permanente, had left a note:
“School – can’t deal with school system,” the letter began, Jensvold’s sister, Susan Slaughter, told The Associated Press.
And later: “Debt is bleeding me. Strangled by debt.”
According to Forbes, Jensvold was in despair about the school placement for her son, who had an autism spectrum disorder. In her suicide note, Jensvold also described Ben as having “writing problems, migraines, hearing things” and being “a bit paranoid”; she said that she knew of the difficulties faced by those whose parents committed suicide and said she did not want to put Ben in that situation.
Jesnvold and Ben’s father, Jamie Benhard, were divorced. Benhard notes that Ben had also struggled with his weight, which was 275 pounds before he spent nine months at the Wellspring Academies, a weight-loss boarding school in North Carolina where he lost 100 pounds.
Jensvold had sought a placement for Ben at an out-of-district private school, Ivymount Academy in Rockville, Md., which specializes in teaching children with autism spectrum disorders and other learning disabilities. But her school district in Montgomery County contended that they had an appropriate public school placement for Ben and — in a situation all too familiar to many parents of children with disabilities, my husband and myself included — Jensvold found herself in “anguished fights with the county public school system.” The Wellspring Academies had cost about $50,000 in tuition; Ivymount’s is about $60,000; that’s a lot, but that’s the average tuition for such private schools (some that are specifically for autistic children here in New Jersey charge even more).
Jensvold is described as a “protective mother, constantly fighting with Montgomery County schools over how best to accommodate her son.” One of her reasons for seeking a private school for Ben seems to be concerns about him being teased and even (though this term is not specifically used by Forbes) bullied.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Jensvold had the right to dispute the school district’s decision not to place Ben in Ivymount. Doing such can cause parents deep emotional strain, not to mention putting them into financial straits from paying lawyer’s fees. My husband and I have been in extremely contentious disputes with school districts about our 14-year-old son Charlie‘s needs. Just because a school district says it has an “appropriate” program for your child does not mean that it is. In-district programs are as a rule much less costly as, for one thing, the school district does not have to pay for transportation to an out-of-district placement that may be in another town or even county.
Forbes says that a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County school district said that “privacy laws prevented her from discussing the particulars of Barnhard’s case, but that the district offered vast options for its 17,000 special-education students and will refer students for private schooling when it can’t meet their needs.” This is the usual sort of statement that school districts make about cases in which a child’s school placement is disputed.
Taking her son’s life and her own more than suggests the desperation Jesnvold felt. But surely there could have been some other measures to take. As Jensvold’s sister Susan Slaughter says, their mother had offered to help pay the tuition for Ben to attend Ivymount; a check for $10,000 arrived in the mail the day after Jensvold’s and her son’s bodies were found.
A study published just this month in Pediatrics has found that students with disabilities or health problems are far more likely to be bullied than other students. Ben, with both an ASD diagnosis and his struggles with his weight, faced a number of challenges and the question remains if these were truly being appropriately and adequately addressed and a double tragedy could have been avoided.
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