D65 parents say special ed broken

Eunice Lee

After the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 administration presented a report detailing its advances in special education services, parents have come out in force to say they have not seen the progress the district claims.

At an April 21 Board of Education meeting, the district touted measures such as its “unified system of delivery,” focus on the “whole child” and “parental participation.”

“The board has done a lot to improve (special services),” Board President Mary Erickson said. “We’re working with an inclusion idea to keep kids in the regular classroom. We’ve come a long way, and I think we should acknowledge that.”

But many parents disagree.

Cari Levin, who brought a lawsuit against the district for its negligence in providing necessary services for her child, said the administration makes it difficult for parents to feel like “partners.”

“The administration has this mentality to protect themselves and keep parents at arm’s length,” Levin said. “They are withholding rather than forthcoming about services.”

Levin won her case against the district in November. The hearing officer determined the district was not providing her son with a “free and appropriate education” and was required to reimburse Levin for legal fees as well as tuition for a therapeutic day school for her son.

Board member Mary Rita Luecke said the district has a “gatekeeper mentality” when it comes to providing resources for parents.

“We need to see ourselves as working more in collaboration with parents to serve needs of (their children),” she said. “Where there is conflict, it is important to use mediation rather than due process.”

District 65 Director of Special Services Geneva Oatman and Superintendent Hardy Murphy did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

MIXING DIFFERENT DISABILITIES

Administrators are “segregating” children with disabilities rather than integrating them in regular classrooms, parent Cynthia Rolfe said.

Rolfe said her son is highly gifted but suffers from a disability known as Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder in which affected individuals have severe difficulty interacting socially. Students who are gifted and have disabilities are known as “twice exceptional” students.

Rolfe, who eventually hired a lawyer to fight for resources from the district, said she was strongly encouraged on two occasions to place her child in an emotional disability classroom. She was not allowed to observe the class before making a decision, she said.

“These children are not getting the proper therapy,” Rolfe said. “The school district gives them a non-clinical, ‘behaviorally disturbed’ diagnosis and warehouses them in this classroom.”

Luecke said she is concerned about classrooms that mix students with different types of disabilities.

“It is my guess that more often the behaviorally disturbed are grouped with the emotionally disturbed,” Luecke said. “Emotional disabilities can sometimes be triggered by behavioral problems in other children.”

Petra Guy, whose son suffers from bipolar disorder, said the behavioral disability classroom exacerbated her son’s condition. Within two weeks of entering the classroom, Guy’s son was suffering from severe depression and self-mutilation.

“It is scary because a lot of these kids that have these behavioral issues are very aggressive,” she said. “The teacher was not understanding of his needs.”

In other cases, the district refused to accommodate students’ disabilities. Rachael Gross, a parent of a twice-exceptional sixth-grader, said her son received high test scores but low grades due to his learning disability.

“He really needed extra help, and the district refused to help him in any form or fashion,” Gross said. “They refused to acknowledge that he had any sort of issue whatsoever.”

COMPLAINTS OF NON-COMPLIANCE

Special education parents said their primary concern is that District 65 is not following government regulations regarding children with unique needs.

Though the district issues every special education student an Individualized Education Program that details the specific accommodations they require, several parents said the district has neglected to provide these services.

Nancy Traver, whose son suffers from bipolar disorder, said although the IEP required that her son’s classroom hire a special aide, the district failed to comply.

After hiring an attorney, Traver was able to get an aide for her child, though she said the aides the district hired were inexperienced and untrained in dealing with emotionally disturbed children.

“The situation hurt everyone,” Traver said. “He was suspended at least once a week. He was falling behind academically. He was immensely unhappy. I would literally have to carry him to the bus every day.”

Board members said they sympathize with the parents of students with disabilities.

“Your heart really goes out,” board member Keith Terry said. “I have a child with an IEP. I feel their pain. I understand that trying to get my arms around special education services is (complex).”

Guy said the district made excuses when she requested a copy of her son’s IEP form so she could better understand the accommodations he needed and prepare for upcoming meetings with the district. In the end, the district gave Guy a copy based on a teacher’s notes instead of the original form, she said.

“It’s frustrating because they know that I don’t have the money to get an attorney to fight for me, and I’m not a professional that knows all these laws,” Guy said. “They’re trying to push it under the rug.”

Parents said they will continue to work for more accountability in the district.

“They need to stop hiding behind lawyers, stop wasting time and money fighting families,” Rolfe said. “They’re creating tremendous ill will. We need to make a community, yet people want to move.”

[email protected]