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Perspective | This school system needs to get a better IDEA of how it treats students with special needs

I have been a public school teacher for over 21 years.

I have taught in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System for over 16 years.

My job is to teach the very students who come to my classes regardless of where they come from. If they need modifications or extra assistance, I am bound as a teacher to make every effort to remove any obstacle I can to facilitate learning the curriculum. And if I cannot, then I ask for help.

If a student has an IEP or a 504 plan, then I am by law compelled to make the modifications necessary to allow for the curriculum to be accessible for the student. If those accommodations are not working, then I with the parents, other teachers, school administrators, and system personnel alter/improve/revise the plan and seek every solution possible for that student until every outlet has been exhausted.

But most importantly, I am a parent of two public school students.

My youngest has an IEP. He also happens to have Down Syndrome and autism. Both affect his ability to access the curriculum that the state mandates. He needs help. He needs modifications. He needs accommodations.

He needs advocates.

I am the father a child who can learn and can learn best when he is around typically developing students who can model for him. Being my children’s father is the most important “job” I have. So, when my wife and I attend IEP meetings for our son, the teacher “hat” comes off.

I don’t care about the standardized test scores. My son is not “standard.” In fact, none of the now thousands of students I have taught or come into contact with in my career were ever “standard.”

I want him to learn and be a part of this world, not apart from it. And all of the research says that placing students with special needs in regular classroom settings can benefit ALL students.

So I am a public school teacher in the WSFCS system where both my children attend public schools. I believe in public education. I believe in my profession. But I also believe that when I see something wrong that negatively impacts students, I need to speak up and speak out.

Therefore, I desperately need to inform the WSFCS system that it has a massive problem.

A press conference was held last week highlighting a recent decision by an administrative law judge on the state level that found the WSFCS system in violation of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) pertaining to a high-functioning child with Down Syndrome.

This is from the press release.

An administrative law judge ruled the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS) has violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in a case involving the education of a kindergarten student with Down syndrome.

In August 2018, six-year-old Quinn Cronin started her kindergarten year at Whitaker Elementary School, fully included in a regular education class. Almost immediately, school staff began removing her from her peers for periods of time throughout the school day without informing her parents. After attending only nine-and-a-half days of school and against the wishes of her parents, the district reassigned Quinn to South Fork Elementary, where she would be placed in a self-contained classroom for students with disabilities located in a trailer behind the school. Quinn’s parents, McNeil and Kelly Cronin, advocated for their daughter to be included in a regular education classroom by attending meetings with school staff, contacting WS/FCS administration, and hiring an advocate. When it became clear the WS/FCS would not allow Quinn to learn alongside her non-disabled peers, the Cronins withdrew their daughter from the district and enrolled her in a private school, where she was assigned to a regular education class and provided appropriate supports.  In November 2018, the Cronins filed a lawsuit against the WS/FCS, alleging the district had violated IDEA by placing her in a segregated setting even though she was capable of learning in a regular education classroom. A hearing was held in March and April 2019.

In her decision, Judge Stacey Bawtinhimer found the WS/FCS violated the IDEA by failing to provide Quinn a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) and predetermining Quinn’s placement in the segregated setting thus denying Quinn’s parents the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the decision.  The judge’s decision brought relief to the parents: “The judge’s ruling marks the closing of one of the most emotional chapters in our life.  What we want for our daughter, and for kids like our daughter, is what all parents want: for our child to have the opportunity to learn alongside her neighbors and her friends, and to be truly included in her classroom.”  Judge Bawtinhimer ordered the WS/FCS to reimburse Quinn’s parents the costs they incurred to send Quinn to private school and to work with an inclusion specialist to develop a new Individualized Education Program (IEP) for Quinn’s return to WS/FCS.  Until the new IEP is developed, the judge ordered for Quinn to remain in the private setting where she is being educated alongside her non-disabled peers and flourishing academically and socially.

The Cronins’ experience with the WS/FCS is one they hope no other family will need to experience. To give meaning to their child’s experience they feel compelled to tell their story. They feel a duty to do so in the hope the presentation of their story and sharing the Judge’s decision will prevent the same from happening to another family.

Also with that press release is the 110-page decision/verdict. Here is the link:  2019-8-23 Final Decision.

It’s rather enlightening. What makes it even more eye-opening is that the judge sided with the parents on every issue and the parents had the full burden of proof.

The story these parents “told” is the story of a lot of parents with children with special needs. However, many parents do not have the resources or the time to research what their rights are when it comes to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Raising a child with disabilities can be expensive and time consuming.

Think of the therapy, doctors’ visits, workshops, clinics, advocacy campaigns, fundraisers, etc. that many families of children with special needs attend and seek out just to allow their child to get help. And that’s in a state that supposedly has a giant budget surplus.

But this same state has eliminated over 7,500 teacher assistants, refused to expand Medicaid (at hardly any cost to the state), taken away state financed professional development for teachers to help them learn more about children with needs, and does not actively instruct its teachers about IDEA.

Furthermore, this state has made school performance grades with its uneven formula so reliant on student achievement rather than student growth that many in our state and local systems measure themselves with test scores and not with what really helps students grow.

What the judge found in this case is not an isolated incident. It has happened frequently. Have a child with a “disability” and you will seek support from others who face the same challenges. Communities get built and stories and experiences get shared. And a wealth of knowledge.

What is an isolated incident is that the two parents in this particular case fought back — not only for their child but for others like her.

Like my child.

What we have in this school system is an aversion in some places to allow students with special needs to have the chance to access the general curriculum like other students when accommodations can be given.

Too many times children with special needs seem to be funneled to certain campuses and certain parts of schools in the name of “resources.” What federal law states is that all students are allowed to be in the least restrictive educational settings to access the curriculum and only when every possible accommodation and modification has been exhausted are they gradually placed in a more restrictive setting with the input from the parents and others on an IEP team.

That did not happen here in a top-rated elementary school whose school report card grade supposedly indicates that it can teach any child who walks in its doors very well. There are other schools in this district who may not have the “high” school performance grades, but service children like mine with integrity and dignity and keep the parents informed of all matters pertaining to their child.

My son goes to a school now that has gone out of its way to help him. I will sing its praises to anyone who asks.

Every parent of a child with special needs should be able to make that claim.

Yes, my school system may not like one of its teachers writing about what it lacks. But it is not just a teacher writing this. It’s a parent of a special child who deserves as much of an equitable chance as any other child. A parent who has a tremendous amount of respect for what the people who fought and won this lawsuit did for so many children and families in this area.

A new superintendent took office this week. The problem that this lawsuit exposed will be a part of what she inherits. But she and her staff can own the solution. They can fight for better funding, training, and resources for all children in our school system. They can be a team of educators that parents with special needs can go to for help rather than feel like they have to fight against.

Or the school system can appeal this decision and draw this out further.

But the burden of proof will be on them using tax dollars.

And that 110-page decision is rather illuminating.

Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.