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For mentally ill students, school can add stressors

Friday, August 29th, 2014 | Posted by
Barb and Tim Tuscany watch as son Massimo builds with Legos. (Photo: John Burgess)

Barb and Tim Tuscany watch as son Massimo builds with Legos. (Photo: John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

By ANN CARRANZA / Healdsburg Correspondent

For most families back to school means new clothes, a new backpack and some school supplies. But for a child with mental illness and his or her family, it means added stresses. How will the child cope with the change? What effects can be expected with a new schedule? Will the school district have new rules and expectations?

For Barbara and Tim Tuscany, both 50, and their 12-year-old son, Massimo, the tension eased when they found Anova, a private school in Santa Rosa that was able to give Massimo the services he needs. It provides educational, behavioral and therapy services to children ages 5-22 who have a variety of mental illnesses, learning differences, and social and emotional challenges. (For more resources, click here.)

Massimo wasn’t even school-aged when his challenges became apparent to his parents. Finding a helpful regimen of medication and services took years.

Barb Tuscany says Massimo was intense while he was still an infant and required bear hugs to help him settle down. They put a net over his crib to keep him from escaping. At first, their family physician said he would outgrow his strong emotional reactions, but both parents sensed it was more than that.

“I do remember him being so active we couldn’t turn him off,” Tim Tuscany said. “He’d be hyper — biting, hitting, and nothing we did could control that outburst of energy. Even when he was being affectionate, it meant hours and hours of high energy.”

Barb Tuscany shares a hug with son, Massimo, 12. (Photo: John Burgess)

Barb Tuscany shares a hug with son, Massimo, 12. (Photo: John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Office of Education began to assess Massimo when he was 4 and referred him to a social worker and early childhood education specialists. He was subject to IQ, behavioral, emotional and physical assessments that led to a list of recommendations but no diagnosis for his condition.

“We had to keep pushing,” Barb said. “We finally hired an advocate after Massimo ended up getting sent to the principal’s office every day in kindergarten.”

The advocate, Noreen Ringlein, works for the San Francisco-based Community Alliance for Special Education, a nonprofit group that charges on a sliding scale and doesn’t turn anyone away for inability to pay. She referred the family to Dr. Carina Grandison in Berkeley, who diagnosed rapid-cycling bipolar disorder with attention deficit disorder.

Staff at the Stanford Bipolar Clinic provided a second opinion, saying they couldn’t endorse the diagnosis in a child so young.

Federal guidelines require school districts to provide immediate support for some conditions. Children with low IQ and autism spectrum disorders are eligible for services, for example, but none were in place for children with bipolar disorder or attention deficit disorder.

“Parents get caught in an alphabet soup,” Barb said. “We asked, ‘What supports do we need to help Massimo be successful in school?’ ”

Ringlein worked through the Healdsburg School District’s Individualized Education Program to get Massimo some help, but an attorney was required to get him placed in Anova, with $35,100 annual tuition paid by the district.

Until 2011, state and county agencies provided special education services to students with mental health issues. That year, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed the law called Assembly Bill 3632 and placed the financial burden for that care on school districts.

“The effect of the repeal is it’s harder to get kids services,” Ringlein said. “School psychologists were unprepared for the amount of testing they need to do.” The psychologists’ heavy caseloads also make it impossible to meet with students as frequently as needed.

Ringlein now handles 53 cases, and she has handled thousands more in her 20 years of advocacy.

“There has been a definite increase in autism, and that has increased our caseloads,” she said. “I tell parents, ‘If your child is out of the normal in terms of intense temper tantrums, withdrawal, or they cannot rebound from situations, they should get counseling, even if for just two sessions.’

“It’s a scary situation. There aren’t enough services available because clinicians moved to other jobs when the funds dried up. Health insurance does not cover enough services, if it covers mental health services at all. There are fewer crisis units because too many places have closed.”

Barb Tuscany acknowledged the problems.

“The school offers a minimal amount of support so a child can be mainstreamed, and it takes a blowup for a lot of parents to get those services,” she said. “Anova was a godsend for us. They’re miracle workers.”

Barb said the early years wear parents out because there is no relief. She and Tim said their deep faith has helped keep them together as a family, and Barb kept her sanity with the help of Christian women’s retreats that provided child care.

Meanwhile, Massimo had a recent change of medication and started seventh grade at Anova this month. While he struggles with reading, he’s doing well in other areas, has a green belt in taekwando, understands what he needs and at school can ask to “take a space” whenever he needs to. His nickname is “Awesome Massimo” for his physical prowess at sports, and his favorite subjects are physical education, history and science.

“He’s doing well,” Tim said.

“I don’t think Massimo is that different from other kids. Having mental illness is like having high blood pressure, and we don’t stigmatize people with high blood pressure.”

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