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Special ed still broken, despite small victories

Mother charges abuse of disabled son

(Published May 3, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

With student waiting lists bursting at the seams and city council launching an emergency investigation into D.C. special education, even Superintendent Arlene Ackerman knew her administrationís recent push to complete 184 backlogged evaluations by an April 30 deadline would result in a small victory at best.

Recent testimony from parents, students, teachers and administrators themselves suggests the system still is plagued by fragmented leadership, burned-out teachers and an atmosphere of chaos.

A recent shake-up removed three veteran members of the department and Ackerman said more personnel changes are imminent. But it has been nearly three years since D.C. schools had a permanent director of special education. Frieda Lacey, on loan from Montgomery County, Md., schools for the last six months, has been serving temporarily as a special adviser to the superintendent on the matter. She plans to leave the D.C. schools in mid-May, sources say, and a replacement appears to be nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, at a recent school board hearing, parents, students, teachers and residents revealed alarming details of a system gone awry.

Special education students are routinely stigmatized by being made to line up separately from other children on the playground and sit separately in the cafeteria, said Kenilworth Elementary School special education teacher Stuart Benton. Special education teachers also are stigmatized by sometimes being excluded from staff meetings or not given staff material, he said.

And there are more serious allegations.

LaVensus Jones told the Board of Education April 20 that her 11-year-old son Patrick Brown has been repeatedly abused by teachers at Noyes Elementary School over the past year. Jones said that earlier that month a speech therapist backed him into a corner, dug her fingernails into his arm and taunted him with remarks about his mother.

On Dec. 18, Jones said, she made an unscheduled visit to the school and found her son being punished by the school psychologist by being made to sit under a desk for nearly an hour.

"That is absolutely not appropriate," said Kevin Dwyer, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists. "I have never heard of making a child sit under his desk. Iím puzzled as to why someone would do something like that. I canít imagine what learning experience that is supposed to be for the child."

And there were other incidents, Jones said.

Last fall, on the evening before Thanksgiving, a shortage of special education bus drivers left Patrick and other students waiting at school for four hours past dismissal time. When Patrick and another boy started fighting, an already frustrated teacherís aide grabbed the key chain Patrick wore around his neck and choked him with it for several minutes. According to Jones, the aide had to be restrained by a male staff member. Patrick was later suspended for five days.

When asked about Jonesí allegations, Creola Langley, who oversees the special education program Patrick participates in, said, "I cannot provide any information at this time."

Later, after speaking with her supervisor, she said, "It is absolutely not true. We provide the best of services for our children. We have a very fine program."

She declined to discuss additional details of Patrickís case.

Noyesí principal Isaac Jackson also denied the charges.

"Any incidents that have been brought to my attention have been looked into and come back to me negative," he said, adding that he has no direct oversight of special education students in his building.

Jones admits her son can be disruptive in school but also said Patrickís behavior cannot improve when teachers react to his outbursts with outbursts of their own. She said he is often taunted and berated by teachers as well as other students.

"I take my hat off to the people who choose this profession," she said. "I know it is a stressful job. I just want them to be held accountable for their actions. I want someone to hear me."

A big boy with glasses, Patrick sat through the school board meeting calmly, drawing pictures and writing. Then, when his name was called, he went to the microphone shyly and described his life at the school.

"When other kids start something with me the teachers never see it, but if I start something with someone else, they always see me," he said.

As Patrick testified, members of the board of education looked at each other in surprise. Some found it hard to believe that Patrick had been classified among the most severely impaired students in the system.

"That is not Level 4," board member Tom Kelly said to Jones, referring to Patrickís official classification. "He did a very nice job."

Jones said repeated efforts to have these alleged incidents investigated have only earned her a reputation among school staff as a troublemaker. Although she reported all incidents to school staff, she said she has yet to see a written report or any action.

Patrick was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in 1993 and classified as a "Level 1" student, the mildest category of disability, his mother said.

Now after six years in D.C. special education, he is classified as Level 4, the most severe category. He spends little or no time in mainstream classes. School staff who say they canít help the boy have suggested sending him to another D.C. school, whose special education program is not considered particularly effective. Jones said her relationship with school staff has so deteriorated that she is now considering sending her son to a private school in Virginia ó at a cost to taxpayers of about $30,000 a year.

If Patrick ends up in a private school placement, the tuition and transportation costs will be added to the $44 million the District spent last year on just 1,600 children. If he stays where he is, his mother fears he will continue to be abused and his behavior will deteriorate further. She worries that as he approaches adolescence, she wonít be able to keep him on the right path. Jones, a single mother, is employed by the federal government and is working toward a bachelorís degree in business from Trinity College.

"I have a good job. I am not on drugs. We go places together as a family. I am trying to raise my son to be a man," she said. "It seems like the school keeps trying to tear me down."

Lacey said she is concerned about Patrickís case and has asked that it be investigated.

"He just didnít seem... emotionally disturbed," she said. "He was able to sit still and speak in front of an audience and state his case. Many kids canít do that, special education or not."

Meanwhile Jones fears that many of the 8,000 special education students in the District will end up in jail if they donít get help.

Other parents echo her sense of alarm.

"How many of these kids are going to end up pregnant or in Lorton (prison)?" asked Ward 7 resident William Wilson. "If we donít help these kids today, they are going to be hitting us upside the head tomorrow."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator