Sides far apart in special education debate

Administration meets with Grosse Pointe Down Syndrome Guild parents

By: April Lehmbeck | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 21, 2014

GROSSE POINTES — The Jan. 13 school board meeting turned emotional as some parents fought back tears when talking about their concerns with inclusion and the special education process in the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

It was part of an ongoing dialog between the district administration, the school board and a group of parents who have been reaching out and speaking out at meetings.

Some parents with the Grosse Pointe Down Syndrome Guild have said that there needs to be more done in terms of inclusion for children with special needs, including at the preschool level. Stefanie Hayes, director of student services, gave a presentation during the Jan. 13 meeting, and parents also met with administration and staff during a separate meeting last week to address concerns.

“Our goal is that, a year from now, as of January of 2015, that we have a presentation where it’s a collaborative presentation of the changes that we have put into place,” Superintendent Thomas Harwood said.

Harwood said he also is a parent of a child with special needs, and he has sat through the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) process as a parent.

He said the district looks at the needs of each student with plans to continue working to make things better.

“We have room for improvement, and that is changing and that is occurring,” Harwood said.

After the meetings last week, a couple of parents who are heavily involved expressed frustration at the outcome of those meetings. The process will continue into February, with plans to place the issue on a school board agenda.

The January 13 board meeting drew parents beyond the Grosse Pointe Down Syndrome Guild, including parents of students with other disabilities.

Hayes gave a presentation during which she discussed how the district focuses on students on an individual basis and addressed what she believes are misperceptions or myths.

For instance, she said that it’s a misperception that students with IEP’s are not involved in general education classes or activities, that parents have no input in team decision-making, or that preschool-age children with IEP’s are “tracked” into cognitively impaired programs.

“We are invested in our families and our students,” she said.

She explained that decisions are made by a team, which includes the parents, and are done on an individual basis.

She said the law is not inclusion of all children fully into a general education classroom, but to place students in the “least restrictive environment appropriate to meet their unique needs.”

She said all children, including those with special needs, can take part in programs and activities like drama, art and more.

“Wonderful opportunities do exist for all of our students,” Hayes said. “We want all of our students educated with their nondisabled peers as much as appropriate.”

Hayes talked about the special education services the district provides, including how it works to provide programs that will keep as many students as possible in their home district. Other districts refer their students to Grosse Pointe Schools special education programs, she said.

Some parents have been arguing at multiple meetings that their children should be educated alongside their peers without disabilities instead of isolating them throughout their education. They have argued that there are studies that show the benefit of inclusion, but they argue that the benefits also extend to their nondisabled peers.

Hayes said that students are not segregated and do have opportunities to interact and get to know their peers through classroom and after-school activities.

Hayes talked about the department’s action plan, which includes continuing to provide students who have an IEP with access to curriculum and to their peers in the general education classroom in a least-restrictive environment for each student; continuing to assess students so that they can provide “a continuum of programs and services, as mandated by law”; continuing “to communicate and collaborate with all families of students with an IEP”; continuing professional development; and more.

Board Treasurer Judy Gafa responded that she was happy to see that the district presented an action plan because she wants to see that the district is going to work on this.

While the goal is to continue working on the issue and have an action plan, board Secretary Lois Valente, a mother of a child with special needs, said she was offended by the presented action plan.

“There’s a lot of things that were said tonight that I’ve heard over and over for years and years,” Valente said. “We do have some extraordinary teachers … but they are only allowed to teach and provide within the boundaries set up.”

“Special education has been in dire straits for years and years,” she said, adding that, as a board member, she takes responsibility, as well.

“What I’m offended about the most was within the action plan was continue, continue, continue,” Valente said, adding that “continue” means status quo. “I didn’t see ‘we’ll change.’”

She had a number of ideas that they could put on an action list.

For instance, she mentioned that having students with disabilities placed together in a classroom with a general education teacher does not make it an inclusive classroom.

Valente also believes therapists should begin their work with students on day one and not a couple of weeks into the school year, and that substitutes should be on hand to fill in when a therapist is off work.

Valente said she has seen some positive change this year in the area of positive behavior support plans, but she added that there is still improvement needed. 

Board Vice President Daniel Roeske wanted to add that the district needs to work on its continuity of services among the various schools in the district. 

“We should be doing everything at every school for every child,” he said. “We want to work on this. We take it seriously.”

During the public hearing, people discussed their concerns with the current situation and also showed their support to the staff. 

Some of the concerned parents mentioned that they weren’t saying that the district didn’t have a caring staff.

“We do have wonderful teachers, wonderful support staff, lots of opportunities for our kids, but we still have lots to do,” said Georgia Shrikey, a mother of a child with special needs. 

Parents expressed their frustration with the progress.

“I am so disappointed and insulted that, after waiting six months for a response, we got the presentation today,” parent Julie Moe said.

She and others at the meeting said the issues they are raising are not misperceptions, but reality.

“I am scared to send Max to school here, not because of my misperceptions or myths, but because of the facts,” Moe added.

Grosse Pointe South graduate Olivia Monette was one of a number of people who spoke during the meeting.

“I have seen my innocent, loving and intelligent 5-year-old brother being segregated and treated differently for something that he has no control over,” she said. “You are doing a disservice not only to students with special needs by segregating them, but we are doing a greater disservice to typical students who graduate from the Grosse Pointe School system thinking that students with special needs are to be avoided and judged from afar.”

Mother Jennifer Munson spoke, as well. 

“We believe you are not providing our children with the least- restrictive environment,” she said, adding that they believe the district is “placing them in the most restrictive environment.”

Several others spoke about their concerns and the individual experiences they’ve had with the district.  Some of those stories involved parents who felt their input was disregarded in the decision-making process for their children’s educational program. Harwood said some of the comments made by parents at the meeting about behavior toward parents and students were things that were unprofessional and offensive, and things the district intends will not happen again. He said they would develop a plan with measureable outcomes to move forward.

Others spoke in support of the district.

“On behalf of the special education department, we certainly are very concerned about all of our parents and all of our parents’ concerns,” school psychologist Lisa Khoury said. “I also want to let you know that the boots on the ground are working very hard … for every student, label and no label.

“We are collaborating,” Khoury said. “We are building relationships. We are keeping our eyes and focus on students and moving them forward.”

Parent Jenny Silva said her child is in a cognitively impaired classroom and spends about a half an hour a day in a third-grade classroom.

“I have heard a lot of very negative and bad experiences, and I’m so sorry that you’ve all had those experiences, but I can tell you for our daughter … she’s had some pretty great experience,” Silva said.

She said there has been a lot of criticism of the special education programs in the district, but she “would just be cautious to change the tide too much.”