Joseph A. Craig Charter School broke state law by suspending a student school leaders thought was depressed, and preventing him from returning until he saw a psychiatrist, according to the state Department of Education.

That’s not a legitimate reason to keep a child out of school, Laura Hawkins, deputy chief of staff for the state education department, wrote to Hilda Young, chairwoman of the Friends of King Schools board.

In the February letter, she formally notified Young that the school had violated the terms of its charter and had to take certain steps to return to good standing.

The boy’s mother was given a “Notice of Exclusion” on Jan. 25 and told he could not return until he’d been cleared by a particular psychiatrist recommended by the school, according to Hawkins’ letter.

School officials told the mother they thought the boy was depressed and needed to be on medication, according to Hawkins. But the document his parents received, she wrote, listed “various illnesses that are generally considered contagious but which are unrelated to this student’s situation.”

The boy was out of school for five days, which “amounted to a suspension,” Hawkins wrote.

State law and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education policy “do not provide for the use of exclusion in the instance of a child recommended for psychiatric evaluation or showing signs of depression,” she wrote.

In an apology letter to the boy’s mother, Tracie Washington, an attorney for the charter network, wrote there had “been a grave misunderstanding.”

The school had worked with the boy’s family throughout the school year and had tried to connect them to agencies that could help, Washington wrote. But the boy’s mental health was “spiraling downward,” she continued, and school officials and the boy’s grandmother were concerned he could hurt himself or someone else.

She said the school principal could have called for outside intervention. However, “in good conscience, Mrs. Ford — an educator of African-American students for over 30 years — would never choose state intervention (with the possibility that the child would be removed from the parent), as an option here.”

Instead, she wrote, the grandmother and the school principal agreed to send the boy home until he saw a psychiatrist. “Craig School has never suspended [him] outside of school,” Washington wrote.

The boy’s mother contacted a social worker at the Youth Opportunity Center to discuss the situation. The social worker alerted the Department of Education.

Ann Ford, principal at Craig, told a state education department employee the boy had been asked to see a doctor due to “‘strange’ behavior and verbal threats,” according to Hawkins. The notice from the school, however, didn’t mention verbal threats.

Liz Marcell is the director of the New Orleans Therapeutic Day Program, which educates students diagnosed with severe mental and behavioral issues who need specialized services that most schools can’t provide.

She said she’s heard of children — in New Orleans and elsewhere in the country — being held out of school for this reason. “That’s why it’s explicitly in the law,” she said.

Sometimes it happens because school officials misinterpret students’ behavior, she said.

“True depression in a child often manifests itself as irritability and aggressive behavior,” Marcell said. “That isn’t necessary true for adults.”

In her letter, Washington agreed that students should not be removed from school for mental health issues.

“As Ms. Ford indicated to you and to your mother, sending [him] home — in effect penalizing him for what you and everyone else understood was a severe mental health issue — was not and can never be an appropriate response when a student is hurting,” she wrote.

All Recovery School District charters operate under its Charter School Performance Compact. A notice of breach, such as the one issued to Friends of King, is the second of three levels of intervention.

In order to return to good standing, the school had to apologize to the boy, allow him to make up lost teaching time and assignments, and provide the state with its policies on how it provides extra help to students and deals with mental health issues.

This story was updated after publication to include material from Tracie Washington’s letter. (March 31, 2017)

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...