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Six-year-old Cole Camardo is a happy youngster who knows how to spell “Australia” and loves to play with his brother. He also has autism. For the last two years Cole’s parents have been fighting to get him the services and accommodations he’s legally entitled to through their local district, Cherry Hill Public Schools. This past June Cole’s father Shane says he and his wife had no recourse but to disenroll Cole after a history of physical abuse in the classroom and the district’s refusal to consider alternative placements. Why the recalcitrance? Says Camardo, “they’ve turned my son into a dollar sign. They don’t want to lose the $70,000 in federal, state, and local funding they get for Cole” based on his autism classification.
Meanwhile Shane, a former Marine with an MBA and a security business, is working two jobs to pay private school tuition for Cole whom, they feel, has been abandoned by their local school district. This story doesn’t have to end this way and maybe it won’t. But at the moment Cherry Hill and the Camardos are at an impasse.
Three years ago Cole’s parents were delighted with the district’s integrated preschool, Barclay Early Childhood Center. The program seemed robust—according to the state database, 70% of students at Barclay have disabilities—and Cole was making academic progress and enjoying classroom activities. But then COVID hit and Cole was stuck home. “The world was ending,” his father said. “What were we going to do?”
But in winter 2021, in a story that was picked up by multiple news outlets (including this one), an occupational therapist at Barclay, without parental consent, strapped ankle weights on him to “slow him down” because he gives her “a run for my money.” When the Camardos presented documentation of the ankle weights (they saw a photo on ClassDojo, a social media classroom platform), Director of Special Education Caitlin Mallory confirmed that ankle weights were a “prohibited device.” The district initiated an investigation with the state Department of Human Services to establish a new policy on restraints.
Then that winter Cole came home covered in bruises from his ankles to his thighs. “At worst, he was abused,” said Camardo. “At best, he was neglected. Neither are situations any child should have to go through in school.”
Suddenly their happy boy was screaming, “no school!” when it was time to head out in the morning.
Out of concern for his safety, Cole’s parents disenrolled him from Barclay..
In September 2022, Cole began kindergarten at Cooper Elementary School in a self-contained class for students with autism, staffed with a special education teacher and three to four aides for the six students. The teacher, his parents say, was wonderful and caring; she had provided Cole’s home instruction after his parents pulled him from Barclay. Yet somehow, despite the low student to teacher ratio, Cole managed to run out of the building, nearly making it to heavily-trafficked road. One day he came home with a painful rash and another day with a neck laceration. According to his father, a boy in his class bullied him, saying, “I’m going to kill you.” Cole began regressing; he had started “stimming” again, self-stimulatory behaviors that involve repetitive movements. His parents agonized, “we’re losing him again.”
The Camardos thought there was a solution: Cole is high-functioning and various private specialists said he didn’t belong in a self-contained classroom. Instead, they were advised, he should be placed in a general education classroom with a one-on-one aide. This solution would also comply with federal law that says students with disabilities must be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” Yet, according to his father, Cherry Hill refused to try out this arrangement, even on a probationary basis. When they offered to pay out of their own pockets for a one-on-one aide, the district said “no.” At a meeting with Cole’s Child Study Team, they asked for an out-of-district placement in a state-approved private education school—they had one in mind in a neighboring town—but, again, Cherry Hill said “no,” that Cole belonged in Cooper’s self-contained autism classroom. (According to the most recent DOE data, Cherry Hill pays private school tuition for 103 special education students at an annual cost of close to $10 million, about $100,000 per child.)
Camardo started going to school board meetings and speaking out. He wrote to Senators Vin Gopal and Declan O’Scanlon, who represent his district. He reached out to media outlets like NBC, Fox, and Politico. He plans on calling Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Shin Angulo. “It was the only way I could think of to handle it,” he said. “I was doing all I could but the district failed my son.”
This past June, fearing for both Cole’s safety and academic trajectory, the Camardos once again pulled their son out of the district: they had found a private general education school that welcomed Cole. Camarado marveled, “magically all those behaviors went away. He sits during reading time, socializes with other kids, and is just thriving there.”
Yet problems remain—primarily the cost of tuition and the one-on-one aide Cole requires to learn with neuro-typical students. “We may have to leave Cherry Hill [for less expensive housing],” Camardo told me.
They’re not done fighting for Cole’s right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. The Camardos firmly believe Cherry Hill has its priorities wrong, focusing on a revenue stream instead of the well-being of young students with disabilities. “These are some of the most intelligent little people,” Cole’s father explains, “ but they’re placing limits on them and not allowing them to reach their potential. To this district, my son is nothing but a dollar sign.”
(Note: NJ Education Report has reached out to Cherry Hills Public School District for comment. If the district responds, this article will be updated.)