'Jerry's Law' awaits gov
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Hanging on to her grandson’s photo—and his memory—Mary Clark has been pushing a bill forward that would require schools to inform parents or legal guardians of the right to have students evaluated by the Committee on Special Education set up in each school district. The catalyst for her conception of the bill came after her grandson, Jerry Clark III, committed suicide in 2010 by hanging himself. She tattooed his death date, above a broken heart, on her shoulder.
VOORHEESVILLE — After passing both the State Senate and the Assembly, a bill requiring schools to inform parents of their right to have their child evaluated by the Committee on Special Education is awaiting the governor’s signature.
While the bill, known as Jerry’s Law, is still waiting in line with other bills before getting to the governor’s desk, Mary Clark is optimistic it will pass.
“What good is a right if people don’t know they have it?” she asked.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the bill is under review.
Mrs. Clark is the grandmother of Jerry Clark III, who committed suicide in April 2010. Her grandson suffered from emotional issues which, she said, led to him being placed on anti-depressants and mood-stabilizers while he attended Clayton A. Bouton High School in Voorheesville.
While in high school, Mr. Clark had several incidents with the disciplinary system, one of which led to a superintendent’s hearing.
“Superintendent’s hearings are only for egregious violations of the code of conduct,” said Teresa Thayer Snyder, superintendent of the Voorheesville School District.
“I’ve had one in six years,” she continued. “Some schools have multiple each week.”
Due to policy on protecting the privacy of students, Thayer Snyder could not comment on what actions led to Mr. Clark being disciplined, nor what his discipline was.
Clark believes Thayer Snyder’s repeated use of the disciplinary system against her grandson — which she said included his removal from the wrestling team — did not help, and may have hindered, his ability to deal with the mental problems he was having at the time.
After the fate of the bill is decided, Mrs. Clark said her next move will be to try to get Snyder removed from her position.
“She’s just mean-spirited, and hasn’t changed all this time,” Clark said of the superintendent.
Thayer Snyder believes the bill is redundant, and she is not convinced that requiring schools to remind parents of the right to have their students evaluated will help students with emotional issues.
“New York State has a very high incidence of special-education identification,” she said.
There may, in fact, be an over-identification problem, she continued.
“Special education services aren’t for emotional issues,” she said.
The proposal, which would amend current education law, states that, when a child is enrolled in a public school, his or her parents would be informed of their rights “regarding referral and evaluation of their child for the purposes of special education services or programs.”
Parents can be directed to the State Education Department’s website for information, and the notification is to include the name and contact information for the person who chairs the school district’s Committee on Special Education or who is charged with processing referrals to the district.
Clark believes that children who suffer from “emotional disturbances” may benefit from some of the options given to children who have been evaluated to need special education, such as tutoring at home.
Snyder said that a child does not need to be evaluated in order to be tutored at home — a simple doctor’s note will suffice, as the reason for needing at-home tutoring could be anything from a broken leg to emotional issues.
“The school’s focus is on school,” she said. “We are an educational enterprise, not a mental-health facility.”
Snyder emphasized that schools — and their Committees on Special Education — are not equipped to diagnose children with emotional issues, but the school administrators are aware of children within their own district who suffer from mental problems. Also, parents are notified when a student exhibits troubling behavior in school that may be linked to emotional issues, she said.
Clark would like to see schools be mandated to give parents information about having their children evaluated in order to avoid “miscalculations about a child’s health,” she said.
“A person who is very depressed might as well have a learning disability,” Clark said. “It’s very hard to deal with.”
Clark went on to describe her grandson as a martyr for teens with emotional issues, and repeated the statistic that suicide is the third-highest killer of teenagers in the United States.
“I’m looking out for the good of these students,” Clark said.