NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — An Indiana mother has filed a formal complaint against a school district alleging they failed to address bullying, racism and her son’s special needs.
Rebecca Ligler’s son Elijah, a 16-year-old sophomore at Noblesville High School, was involved in a fight with another student on Sept. 25.
The altercation was captured on cellphone video and posted on social media.
As a result of the fight, Elijah was expelled and can’t return to the district until July 31, 2020, records show.
The video was used as evidence in Elijah’s expulsion.
But Elijah’s mother says there’s a lot more to the story and that the district could have prevented the incident in the first place by heeding her repeated requests to provide her son special services.
Elijah is a native of Alaska, and his mother says he’s endured repeated bullying because of his race.
“The other football players would tell him to go eat his dog," Ligler said. “Other students would make comments about him being Asian, which he’s not even Asian. He’s Native American and indigenous.”
On Monday, Ligler filed a formal complaint against Noblesville Schools with the Indiana State Department of Education requesting a review by an independent hearing officer.
The complaint says Elijah suffers from depression and anxiety, and the district went against the opinion of their own school psychologist and denied Elijah special education services.
“I’m frustrated,” Ligler said. “As a parent, you feel very powerless.”
The video shows a female student in a pink shirt push Elijah, and then he pushes her back. The video appears to show the student swing at Elijah. Elijah then hits the female student, kicks her while she’s on the ground and yells “don’t (expletive) touch me!”
Ligler said her son was clearly acting in self-defense.
“He asked her multiple times to back up, and instead of backing up she just comes up for more,” Ligler said. “She turns and pushes him and I’m thinking at this point it was just total reaction.”
Ligler’s attorney Tom Blessing says schools have to follow a federal mandate that requires schools to identify and evaluate children with disabilities.
"The school had a choice-- we can either help this student or punish him,” Blessing said. “If you think about it it's much easier. We'll just kick him out of school and then we don't have to deal with him."
Blessing said the school could have prevented the fight by addressing bullying, racism and Elijah’s special needs as his mom requested.
“Everything she asked for, Noblesville said no, and then they're like ‘oh, he got in a fight we're going to expel him from school,’" Blessing said. “This fight never had to happen. We’re looking at a four year history of repeated requests and it all fell on deaf ears.”
Elijah could still face criminal charges for the incident.
The formal complaint asks the school to lift the expulsion and develop a plan for Elijah that includes special education services.
Blessing said the district receives federal funds to provide these services.
Ligler said she wants her complaint to prompt change within the school district.
“This isn’t just about my child,” Ligler said. “This is bigger than just my child. This is about every single child that needs somebody speaking out for them.”
Noblesville Schools provided a statement to WRTV:
Student safety is our top priority and we take physical altercations very seriously. They are a rare occurrence at NHS and are dealt with swiftly and seriously in collaboration with our Noblesville Police Department school resource officers.
Regarding this specific incident, staff and school resource officers responded immediately and followed our safety process and procedure. We have addressed both individuals involved for this serious violation of our code of conduct.
Noblesville Schools sent the following additional statement Tuesday night:
While we can’t speak to these specific allegations due to student confidentiality laws, we can share that we regularly work in collaboration with parents to evaluate and place students in special education services as needed, and have been recognized at both the state and national level for our special education program. Additionally, complaints of bullying or harassment that are reported to school or district leadership are investigated and addressed.
This story was originally published by Kara Kenney at WRTV.