'School Phobia' Plunges Family Into Misery

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School phobia
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The urge to skip out on school runs deep in the American psyche, from Tom Sawyer to Ferris Bueller and breakfast tables around the nation. But 17-year-old Rebecca Maykish says that for her, school is not just a sometimes-unpleasant chore. It's a full-on nightmare.

Maykish suffers from a type of social anxiety disorder called school phobia, which mental health professionals say can cause severe panic attacks. She has suffered an overwhelming fear of school for most of her life. "I think I was about 5 when my mom had to pull me off the banister to get me into class," she says. As the years passed, her symptoms worsened. "I would go to school. I would just sit there. I couldn't talk. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even concentrate on any of the work. ... It feels like you're having a heart attack, basically."

The Palmerton, Pa., girl describes herself as happy and outgoing — except when she tries to attend school. She says she finds the bustle of a typical school building overwhelming, especially since she's a "big perfectionist."

Barbara Maykish reports that her daughter stopped going to school when she was 8. For the next six years, the mother says, the district would sometimes send tutors to work with her child at home. "It was free-form instruction, very little structure," she says. Tests showed her daughter was performing far below grade level.

Arguing that Rebecca couldn't go to classes, the family won a settlement from the school district. The ruling requires the district to compensate her for the cost of her public education. The district calculates the reimbursement at $45 an hour for 1,000 hours of missed instruction. Since 2004, the Maykishes have received $45,000 — the amount set aside in a special fund for Rebecca's education.

Now school officials say they're surprised by some of the ways the family spent that money, including fees for magazine subscriptions and modeling classes. Palmerton school board officials declined to comment for this article, but in other news accounts, they've noted that the Maykishes had nearly complete discretion. For part of the last school year, Rebecca attended a boarding school in California — at the district's recommendation. She dropped out, and the district has been fining her and her mother for truancy.

A Question Of Progress

The school district and Barbara Maykish agree on the way the money got disbursed. "I would submit an invoice for a service, and then I would get reimbursed," Barbara Maykish says. "But sometimes for camp, summer camp, that was $5,000. They would pay that directly."

Summer camp might seem an unlikely item on the family's list of expenses, but Barbara Maykish says it was therapeutic. "It would help her get out of the house and socialize and feel comfortable with her peers and hopefully be a steppingstone towards returning to school," she says.

The district continued sending instructors to the home. Barbara Maykish says the special fund helped her daughter make progress. The modeling class, for example, was small enough that Rebecca was willing to try it.

School officials say Rebecca has progressed enough to return to school, according to Barbara Maykish. They say the three months she spent at the boarding school prove she's able to attend class. But the mother says her daughter's still not ready. She's seeking a civil rights attorney to file a suit against the school board for discriminating against her disabled daughter.

Meanwhile, the tutors have stopped coming, and the fines are mounting — topping $11,000 this spring. Barbara Maykish says she'll be paying until 2035.

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