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Wyatt’s Story: One Family’s Struggle to Educate a Special Needs Child

Forging an education plan for a child with multiple special needs can be challenging, more so if they live on a remote American Indian reservation.
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Forging an education plan for a child with multiple special needs can be challenging. If that child lives on a remote American Indian reservation, it can be almost impossible, as Paula DuBois, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, has discovered.

Paula and Rick DuBois adopted their son Wyatt when he was 2 years old. Wyatt had been exposed to drugs and alcohol prenatally and he was born prematurely. In his first two years of life he allegedly was severely abused in his foster homes. Paula describes him at 2 as an angry, distrustful child who would head butt, kick and bite. He was also nonverbal, and, as his parents found out when he was almost 4, he had a severe-to-profound-hearing loss.

In addition to deafness, Wyatt was diagnosed with ADHD, extreme separation anxiety and difficulties with mood regulation. He had trouble with planning and organizing, impulse control and synthesizing information, but because of his difficulty communicating, his cognitive functioning could not be accurately evaluated.

Wyatt attended the Lake Region KIDS Program until age 3 and then in the fall of 2005 entered the Turtle Mountain Community Schools Preschool Special Needs Program. In the spring of 2006 he was fitted with a cochlear implant in his right ear at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.

A cochlear implant is significantly different from a hearing aid. With a hearing aid, which is an external device, speech sounds are amplified so damaged ears can detect them. Cochlear implants, on the other hand, bypass the damaged parts of the ear and are permanently inserted into the cochlea where signals picked up by the implant stimulate the auditory nerve. Those stimuli are sent to the brain, which learns—over a period of time and with intensive training—to interpret them as sound and then to translate those sounds into speech.

Wyatt’s language skills were significantly delayed by the time he received the implant. The Turtle Mountain Community School strongly recommended that he be sent to the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, an hour and a half from his home. His father drove him to and from school every day until September of 2007, when he was put in a dormitory at the school.

Paula says she was pressured into sending her son to the residential school, first on the grounds that it was in his best interests, and, later, when she began to push hard for placement in the local school, by the threat of being charged with educational neglect if she did not send him to the boarding school. “I would take him to the school and when I left he would run behind my car crying for me to come back. I watched him chase me down the road, but they kept telling me I had to do it because it was in his best interests,” Paula said.

Wyatt spent a year and a half at the boarding school, beginning at age 4. His parents tried to enroll him at the Bureau of Indian Education/Belcourt School District No. 7 school near their home, but, according to Paula, the school would not accept him because they did not have a teacher for deaf children. All deaf and hard-of-hearing tribal children were sent to NDSD as a matter policy that had been in place for decades, she said.

Paula likens Wyatt’s placement at the residential school to the forced removal of American Indian children—also against their parents’ wishes and also ostensibly for their own good—to government- and missionary-run boarding schools in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries.

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For Wyatt, according to his mother and the family’s attorney, Monique Vondall, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the boarding school experience was disastrous. First, it exacerbated the extreme separation anxiety caused by his early history of abuse; second, in 2008 he had to have emergency brain surgery to replace his cochlear implant, which had been dislodged when a teacher allegedly slapped him in the back of the head; and third, the specialized therapy he needed to learn to use his cochlear implant and develop his language skills was not provided. Wyatt was treated as if he were a deaf child with a hearing aid who needed to learn lip reading and sign language instead of a child with a cochlear implant who needed to learn how to speak and understand spoken language.

Paula DuBois

Wyatt DuBois with his parents, Paula and Rick Dubois.

A resolution settlement agreement between Wyatt’s parents and Turtle Mountain Community Schools reads, “The district [Belcourt School District No. 7] acknowledges Wyatt’s placement at the North Dakota School for the Deaf was inappropriate and a denial of his right to FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education, an educational right of children guaranteed by the federal government] and LRE [Least Restrictive Environment, another federal law that says special needs children must in most circumstances be educated in a mainstream school rather than a specialized school]." The resolution agreement continues: "In three years at the School for the Deaf, Wyatt made no progress toward his expressed educational goal of learning to speak. In fact, he regressed. The deaf education program at NDSD was counterproductive for a child with a cochlear implant in that it consumed valuable time teaching him to become a visual learner. This was the time in Wyatt’s narrow window of opportunity when he ought to have been taught to become an auditory learner. As a consequence of the counterproductive teaching methods at NDSD, he made no progress in processing or producing sounds correctly and made no progress in learning to speak.”

After the emergency surgery, Wyatt’s parents pulled him out of the dormitory and had him driven to school and back each day, a three-hour trip. Then they rented an apartment in Devils Lake so one of them could live near the school and Wyatt could attend as a day student, but eventually they pulled him out of NDSD. He received some outreach services from the School for the Deaf while Paula continued to try to enroll him at Turtle Mountain Community School.

In 2010 the school district hired Marlene Shroeder, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, an experienced early childhood and elementary teacher who had been going to school to get her credentials in deaf education, to teach Wyatt and other deaf and hard-of-hearing children at Turtle Mountain. “When I got Wyatt he didn’t talk at all. He had his own language and it was a language that only he understood. No one else would understand it, not even his parents. He had little sign language; knew his numbers and knew his alphabet. He didn’t know how to read or sign,” she said. “The teachers there [at NDSD] were there for many, many years and accustomed to sign language and not ready for the current trend in cochlear implants.” Wyatt started in grade 2 at Turtle Mountain Community School when he was 8 years old.


Rachel Bruner-Kaufman, attorney for Belcourt Public School District No. 7, responded to ICTMN’s efforts to talk with the Turtle Mountain Community School administration. She said that under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the district cannot talk about any student. “The district is meeting special education requirements and each situation is unique,” she said.

Read more about Wyatt’s educational journey and struggles next week.