Christina Gordon’s 9-year-old had been making progress with his mental health since he started his therapy sessions at Potomac Behavioral and Occupational Therapy nearly a year ago. Gordon went from having to call the police and paramedics once a week for her son to not calling at all.

But last month, Gordon got a letter from Allegany County Public Schools stating that her son’s weekly therapy appointments would no longer count as excused absences. The Frostburg resident had only a few days before the policy went into effect, and she worried how she’d make arrangements to treat her son’s anxiety and depression.

Since then, outrage has been brewing in the Allegany community, a Western Maryland county about 2.5 hours from Baltimore. More than 1,600 people have signed a petition calling for a change to the policy, which the school system says is necessary to stop students from missing so much class time and to address safety issues with a car service one provider used to take children to appointments.

Parents like Gordon say schools will have bigger problems on their hands if students aren’t allowed to get the therapy they need.

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“If [kids] are in full meltdown mode because they don’t have the behavioral health services from the provider, they’re missing more class time then you think,” she said.

A lifelong Allegany County resident, Gordon worked in the mental health field for a decade, and it’s part of reason each of her five kids receives mental health services. It’s something she wishes she had as a child.

On Feb. 17, her kids came home with a letter signed by Superintendent Jeffrey Blank.

“Effective February 21, 2023, student absences for recurring therapy appointments with outside agencies will no longer be excused by ACPS, and students will no longer be released to third parties for these appointments,” the letter stated. “Please attempt to schedule your child’s appointments outside of the normal school day.”

It talked about the importance of attendance, the academic harm caused by chronic absenteeism, and the therapy services students can receive in school.

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Gordon went to the next board meeting March 14 to voice her concerns, and the school board’s lawyer, Mike Llewellyn, spoke with her afterward.

She was told that part of the issue was the driver service her son’s provider uses to take students from school to appointments and back again.

At one of the pickups, school staff noticed the driver climb in and out of the driver-side window because the car door was broken. The door wasn’t a concern to Gordon, who had given Potomac permission to pick up her son. She said she’s seen school buses in worse shape.

School district targeted one provider

Potomac’s owner, James Schnably, said he replaced the car in February before the system sent the unexcused absence letter to parents.

Schnably said he started Potomac Behavioral in 2015 to help people who struggled like he did when he attended the public schools in the 1980s. He had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, that went undiagnosed for a while.

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His company, which offers occupational, physical and speech therapies, as well as addiction and mental health services, has three offices in the county and 4,000 patients. Over 50 of them attend the public schools.

According to the business owner, parents of the patients purposely pick classes like gym or other electives to miss for their therapy sessions. Gordon’s son, who also has physical therapy appointments, goes during lunch and misses between 15 and 20 minutes of class time each week. Missing class isn’t what hurts his grades, she said: “His academics were negatively affected by his outbursts and episodes that he had daily until he started therapy,” she said.

Schnably said the area is low-income, and many patients don’t have transportation. Some parents, like Gordon, can’t afford the gas to take their patients to frequent appointments. That’s why he provides the car service free of charge.

“We’re not violating their policies,” Schnably said. “I think the only thing they can go on is to keep talking about the transportation.”

In a statement to The Banner, the school system said both Allegany and the state’s policies “excuse absences for medical and mental health appointments” but that they shouldn’t interfere with education, and that the transportation provided should be a state-inspected bus or van.

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“There is no reason why Potomac Therapy cannot provide these services in a manner that is not disruptive to school attendance,” the school system said in an email. “It is the only agency that is taking children from school during the middle of the school day on fixed schedules for the entire school year.”

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill requiring school districts to treat an absence due to a student’s behavioral health needs the same as an absence due to illness or other health concerns. The measure corresponded with a rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health issues; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2021 that more than 4 in 10 students felt persistently sad and hopeless and nearly one-third experienced poor mental health. And more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.

Maryland State Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Leslie Margolis, managing attorney for Disability Rights Maryland, said she couldn’t say much about the situation in Allegany County since she didn’t know specifics, but did say she hopes school systems can work things out “so children can make up schoolwork they miss while seeing outside providers who don’t have flexibility to schedule appointments outside of school hours.”

Schnably and the school system have been in touch, but they haven’t reached a solution.

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Llewellyn said in an interview that Potomac patients “may be able to” continue having appointments during the day if it’s unavoidable and give permission for the driver, but they’re “probably going to have to meet with a pupil personnel worker so we can figure it out.”

Blank and Llewellyn said that some parents did not tell the schools the Potomac driver was authorized to pick students up. School officials said they do not know if the driver has the training to transport children with significant disabilities or the background checks required of “all ACPS personnel.” And the system generally does not release students to agencies that do not have a state-inspected bus or van.

Blank said Potomac patients had appointments that last two to three hours twice, or sometimes three times, a week. And most are for physical and occupational health services instead of mental health.

“That’s the other thing that’s striking. These students are in physical therapy for forever,” Llewellyn said.

He asserted that those types of appointments should be temporary and not as frequent. However, medical experts say it’s hard to know how long physical therapy should last since it depends on the patient.

Families petition for change

The letter about unexcused absences targeted 26 Potomac patients with appointments during the school day, but some received it by mistake, the system stated. Talisa Buentello’s family was among the recipients who weren’t Potomac patients. Her teenage siblings often receive mental health services during school hours.

“We had an older sister who committed suicide, so we take mental health very, very seriously,” said Buentello, who graduated from Allegany public schools in 2019.

The letter felt like they were being punished for trying to take care of themselves, she said.

“I understand the whole missing classes and instructional time, but there’s no way you can perform to the best of your ability without those mental health appointments,” Buentello said.

She’s writing a letter to the school board and sharing the online petition.

“Denying excused absences for mental health care is just like denying excused absences for medical appointments, dentist appointments, or seeing a doctor/provider of any kind,” the petition read. “This also impacts school counselors, who are often tasked with other things aside from counseling the children in the schools.”

The system has one mental health provider for every two schools, Blank said, and they collaborate with other mental health providers around the district.

While the school system acknowledged that parents are entitled to outside services, they said parents also “have a legal duty to ensure that their child attends school.”

Gordon said parents are thinking of taking legal action against the school system, and Schnably said he’d pay for their legal representation. In the meantime, she said she found a loophole. The driver was added as an emergency contact and Gordon sends her son to school with a note giving permission to the Potomac driver to pick him up that day.

kristen.griffith@thebaltimorebanner.com