PORTSMOUTH - "Go ahead and punish him," said Lisa Sampson about her 18-year-old son, Maximilian Melville, who was arrested last weekend on charges of selling cocaine out of her basement to a police informant.
"But do so understanding that this is what happens to bright kids in the Portsmouth school system who have learning disabilities," she said. "It all could've been prevented. But they'd rather spend the resources prosecuting and persecuting him."
While "Max" is held at the Rockingham County House of Corrections on $50,000 cash bail, awaiting a March 14 probable cause hearing, Sampson flips through file folders, stuffed with reports documenting his three-year academic and behavioral decline before his Feb. 24 arrest.
There are daily progress reports from the local high school, with recurring references to Max's repeated failures. There are memos from multiple educational experts suggesting coaches, team discussions, behavioral assessments, counseling, vocational assessments and therapy.
And there are warnings, like the one typed Jan. 4, 2005, by school specialist Peg Dawson, saying Max needs his "sense of hope restored."
"Max has to have success and quickly if he is going to feel hopeful," says another dated Jan. 28, 2004.
The piles of paperwork document this mother's advocacy for her son, who by all accounts has a "high-average" IQ, coupled with a language-related learning disability. The disability, according to Sampson's records, led to Max testing at a 1.6 grade level in the category of visual auditory learning while he was in the 10th grade.
It also means he still has trouble reciting the months of the year and making change.
"I had 18 meetings at the school when he was in 10th grade. Eighteen," recalls Sampson. "I could see his skills were getting worse, and I was begging them to please help my son."
Sampson's back-and-forth correspondences with numerous school staffers show the school did help. But not as much as she would have liked.
A self-employed "educational advocate," Sampson learned what the law says Max was entitled to and that her son would have thrived in an environment like the Landmark School in Massachusetts, specializing in educating students with learning disabilities. Max was accepted for admission, but PHS chose not to fund the $60,000-a-year tuition, which was also out of Sampson's reach.
"Max was excited about going," she said. "When it was clear that he would not be going, the bad choices, substance abuse and school problems began."
Throughout it all, she said, Max was embarrassed by his special education label and needs. And he had trouble making friends.
"I knew in October of 2004, he was definitely using drugs," she said, describing the drop in Max's pant size from a 34 to a 28.
But Max's drug use, she said, brought him new status.
"All of a sudden he had friends," she said. "The minute he started, the phone started ringing off the hook."
By then, she said, the local high school was encouraging Max to drop out and get a general equivalency diploma.
"Here's them trying to get rid of him," said Sampson, passing a memo on school letterhead.
Dated March 29, 2005, the letter, written by Director of Student Services Paulette Hoeflich, tells Sampson her son "must officially be withdrawn from the high school" to attend a GED program. The letter also promises to dispatch a cab to pick Max up and bring him to the GED program the following morning, provided he completed a withdrawal form that day.
Max's response was, "GEDs are for losers," Sampson said.
But he did drop out of school.
The following February, Sampson wrote to local Judge Sharon DeVries, telling her Max had been fired from his job and in spite of returning to school, was often truant and in trouble. Also, she said that the school had informed her he was "involved in the drug trade."
Sampson's letter to the judge also describes her requests to local police for her son to be picked up as a Child In Need of Services. She hoped that would "get him the services he needed."
Police refused, so Sampson asked the judge to order Max into a drug treatment program, then to place him on probation "to ensure his compliance."
"I wholeheartedly believe that Max needs to be held accountable for his action," wrote Sampson to the judge. "I also believe that all those who are holding him accountable must be aware that he does not possess the social judgment or social skills necessary to make good choices."
DeVries, said Sampson, got her son a placement in a Bangor, Maine, program, from which Max walked away. At that time, his girlfriend was pregnant.
Max is now in jail facing charges of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, possession of drugs in a motor vehicle and driving with a suspended license.
He always wanted to be an architect, said his mom. Instead, she said, "his life was unnecessarily thrown in the trash."
"I'm not in denial," said Sampson. "I want him to get drug treatment."
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