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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Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Always a question of who is going to pay $$$

Deb W.
Deb W6 years ago

This is both a tragedy and a situation that get's overlooked because of the circumstances.
funding for schools is lacking. Funding for schools to be equipped with Teachers who are experienced in the field of ASD's is grossly lacking.
My son is now entering high school and he has Aspergers Syndrome.
He had a wonderful Teacher in Middle School who was experienced with ASD kids.
I will be trying to get that particular Teacher a "pass" to be able to help my son if need be.

Jessica O.
Jessica O6 years ago

So SAD!!

Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M6 years ago

This is extremely sad. If only the mother had hung on... their is always light and an answer at the end of a struggle.

Vance Daddi
Vance Daddi6 years ago

Heartbreaking. This is what we will see more of if the right wing continues to disable our government. They are bullies and the president has handled these bullies in the wrong way. He tried appeasement too many times to count, and now these right wing, wrap themselves in the flag, fascists will kill what is left of the New Deal. We will see many more parents of special needs children struggling to see that their child get a fair shake.

lee e.
lee e6 years ago

Just two of the few casualties of right wing politics- better get used to it!

monica r.
monica r6 years ago

But if your disabled kid gets to go to a special 60K/year academy, is that why my classroom full of disabled kids has no textbooks, gets fed lunches you wouldn't feed a dog, no art/gym/etc?

I suspect so.

Joyce H L.
Joyce H L.6 years ago

The public schools, I agree w/ another commenter, can't at current levels of funding take care of average kids so how can they deal w/ this mother's issues?? State and federal funds must be provided to help all kids but this won't happen w/ our current cut, cut, cut mentality mostly perpetuated by the tea partiers. Another issue needs to be addressed and that is why are there so many more cases of adhd, autism, and allergies in our youth?? This is an environmental issue and needs to be addressed by the EPA and NIH both of which face draconian cuts by our Republican congress. I'm a public teacher by the way in a state that does pretty well by its children (NY) but it's a harder and harder task w/ federal cuts in so many areas.

trina firey
Trina D. firey6 years ago

I am in a very similar situation.

It is too easy to misjudge this woman.
Someone has commented that it appears she wasnt able to " reason " anymore. How do you assume this? Do you have a seriously handicapped child who is regularly bullied? Does anyone believe most public schools have the staffing and where with all to provide an appropriate, individualized education for these students? I have been on both sides of public schools. There are minimal services actually given...when i wss on extended maternity leave, my replacements neglected to address goals/objectives on my students ieps. I was livid! Annual reviews began as soon as i returned too! I regret covering for my supervisors everyday. My devotion is to parents & children, not unethical professionals! You must advocate for your child in special ed. I have been for nine years now and still my son is without adequate plan, service delivery model and an instructor who has knowledge of his disorder. I will meet with school In a month with a lawyer and three experts. I dont have the money, but i have to find it somewhere. This time is crucial for my son. He needs help NoW. The schools sadly arent going to be there for him unless forced.
Believe it!