SAVANNA-LA-MAR, Westmoreland — October 18 will mark a year since 15-year-old Tahjay Bennett was reportedly forced out of his second high school in Westmoreland.
And according to the boy's mother, Leteisha Cooke, it has been a year filled with frustration and a constant feeling of helplessness.
Cooke alleges that her son was kicked out of Manning's School and Savanna-la-Mar High School due to his constant reporting that he was being bullied. She told the Jamaica Observer earlier this year that her son was the butt of the jokes in his classroom as he is viewed as being different from the other children.
That, she said, had caused the boy to react with anger, ultimately leading to confrontations. The family was consequently encouraged by the guidance counsellor at Manning's School to have him tested for autism after one such confrontation.
Initially, the boy was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, Cooke told the Sunday Observer that she has since learned that her son's correct diagnosis is Asperger's syndrome — a form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Asperger's syndrome is a developmental disorder. Youngsters living with Asperger's syndrome are said to have a difficult time relating to others socially. Their behaviour and thinking patterns can be rigid and repetitive.
Autism Speaks, a website geared towards spreading information on ASD, explained that while children and teens with Asperger's syndrome can speak and perform fairly well in their schoolwork, they have trouble understanding social situations and subtle forms of communication like body language, humour, and sarcasm.
In further explaining her son's plight, Cooke told the Sunday Observer that she has been met with numerous roadblocks since speaking with this newspaper in February this year. She said that while she was contacted by the Special Education Unit at the Ministry of Education's Region Four office, "they have offered little to no help".
Cooke complained bitterly that she felt as though her son was left out in the cold due to his needing special education services. She said that she felt strongly about the situation, as just when she thought her cries were being heard by the regional office, she was let down once again.
"A lady in the special needs department at MOE Region Four said that we should give her a school that we want to send Tahjay to and we told her Belmont Academy. She told us to come and fill out some different forms," Cooke recounted.
She said that after visiting the offices in Montego Bay, her son was referred to a psychiatrist at Cornwall Regional Hospital for assessments. Cooke was reportedly told that the assessment was necessary for his placement at another high school. Admittedly, Cooke told the Sunday Observer that she attempted to have her son return to Manning's School, but was informed that the school had no space for additional students.
One member of the Manning's fraternity, who spoke on condition of anonymity in February, confirmed that an official complaint had been made directly to the school and sympathised with the boy's family. "The school was wrong to have let the boy go, because it is something that the guidance and counselling department could have handled," the individual said then.
In the meantime, the boy's family was still hoping for news that he would be able to return to the classroom for the start of the 2023 school year.
However, that was not so, Cooke said.
"The lady from Region Four waited until September 1st at about 10:25 in the night to send me a message on WhatsApp to say that they got a space for Tahjay at Rhodes Hall High School," she bemoaned.
She complained that her son's diagnosis was not taken into account during this process, as Rhodes Hall High School is located in a section of Westmoreland called Orange Bay, which is a long way from their home.
"It would take him approximately two hours to get to Rhodes Hall High School from our home and I responded to let her know that the distance is too far, so I can't send my son to that school. She did not even reply. She has said nothing more to me," Cooke said.
After that interaction, Cooke decided to escalate the matter by visiting the MOE's office in Kingston. She said that the journey from Westmoreland had brought some positive results and she hopes to see her son decked out in his khaki uniform very soon.
She pointed out that not only has her son been robbed of that experience, but he will be required to resit grade nine, having only completed two months before being allegedly kicked from school.
"I went back to Kingston on Wednesday and I got a package from the MOE's Special Needs Department. They said that they are working to have him back in school very soon. They told me that they have a plan for Tahjay so they are now waiting on the letter from the psychiatrist in Montego Bay. I came to pick it up today, but I did not get it — they said that they will call me when it is ready," she told the Sunday Observer.
The package collected, she said, has brought a sense of hope as her son was approved for the MOE's shadow programme.
A shadow provides one-on-one support in classrooms for special needs students.
A Ministry of Education official, when contacted on Friday, promised to reach out to the ministry's Special Needs Department for an official comment.
"In the meantime though, we filled out paperwork for the shadow programme to have everything ready for his return to school. It was approved and I am now looking for someone to be his shadow," said Cooke.
She said that representatives from the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities have also reached out to her family and are working alongside MOE to have the matter resolved.
This ordeal, she said, has dampened her son's spirit. She is, however, committed to fighting for his well-being.
"Tajay is so frustrated, so we have to be talking to him. He was so disappointed that September came around and he is still at home. I sent him to a little day school with a tutor in Savanna-la-Mar and he was going there up until July, but the owner said he was going to close the school because those children are now going to do CXC. So for now, he is still stuck at home," she said.
"I am so stressed, but I would go to the length and breadth of Jamaica to help my son. I will not stop until he is back in school. I am hoping that everything will work out in October so that he can join a class," Cooke said.