City Watch: D65 Tragedy: Quiet ruling shows parents just ‘throwing stones at the fortress’

Brian Rosenthal

Every once in a while a news story comes along that is so obviously disgusting that you can’t help but be appalled.

That happened in September, when The Daily learned about a behavior modification program administered to special education students at Evanston’s Haven Middle School. The program, developed without parent input and sprung on unsuspecting students, mandates that the special ed students are escorted everywhere they go on school grounds and are isolated from the other students.

Called “Rock to Learn, Learn to Rock,” the program uses a rock band analogy to enforce good behavior. If students – known as “artists” in the 21-page explanatory document – behave well, they record “hot singles,” earn points and get paid in virtual money. If they don’t, they’re classified as “cold plays,” don’t earn points and get fined.

As points accumulate, students earn privileges such as being able to attend physical education classes. Eventually they might earn the high honor of being allowed to go to the bathroom by themselves, although for a limited amount of time: according to the document, “If you need more than three minutes, you better be sick.”

In short, the program ridiculously oppressed the group of children that are most in need.

Petra Guy, the mother of a 13-year-old bipolar student in the class, called it a “prison program.”

In September, Guy and advocate Cari Levin filed a civil rights complaint. They never sought money, but rather to bring an end to what they thought was a humiliating program.

Six months later, in March, the Office for Civil Rights ruled in favor of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, saying the damage was negligible because Guy had transferred her son out of district.

That story never ran in The Daily, or in any other Evanston publication, because we did not know about it. When the ruling came down, despite monthly calls to check in and assurances to keep me updated, Levin was either too embarrassed or too demoralized to report the sad news until I finally reached her earlier this month.

The program, never interrupted by the petty complaint, is still being conducted at Haven.

“It’s like David and Goliath,” Levin told me. “We’re throwing stones at the fortress.”

Last week, Dr. Cassandra Cole released a report showing District 65 had made progress on 18 of 19 special education improvement objectives set out in 2002. The report, requested by the district, was received favorably by the school board.

“We’ve moved the ball along,” said Keith Terry, president of the board. “We should celebrate the successes.”

But parents don’t seem to agree. At the same board meeting, 10 parents expressed their disappointment with the way special education services are conducted in the district, an issue that has left parents increasingly frustrated in recent years.

Local special ed advocate Marian Casey told me the Cole report was inaccurate and incomplete, citing the fact that out of 1,600 special ed students in the district, the report surveyed just 14 of them.

“The administration is not willing to collaborate with parents,” said Casey, herself a special ed parent. “I’m very concerned about the well-being of children with special needs in this district.”

Messages left Tuesday morning for District 65 Special Services Director Geneva Oatman, Assistant Director Margie Lenoir-Davis, Haven Special Services Supervisor Marcy Canel, Haven Principal Kathleen Roberson and Haven Assistant Principal Fred Hunter all went unreturned.

Interviewed Tuesday, Casey said she also hadn’t heard about the decision in the Guy complaint.

“I think it’s a shame,” she said upon hearing the news. “That’s disappointing.”

“The child’s voice is not considered important in this district,” she added. “At the end of every one of these issues is a child sitting in a room, living their life and experiencing these issues.”

Today, a child is sitting in a Haven classroom, experiencing exclusion and humiliation, as an unresponsive district pats itself on the back for its “successes.”

Another David repressed by the mighty D65.


Medill sophomore Brian Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]

Related:Read the full PDF of the “Rock to Learn, Learn to Rock” guidelines from D65School sets strict rules for special-ed students 9/22/08