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Cross River, NY: Parents slam district over handling of disabled students

Aug 27, 2021, Katonah Lewisboro (NY)Times: Katonah-Lewisboro Parents Continue to Advocate for Special-Needs Students

CROSS RIVER, N.Y. – A parents coalition unhappy with the treatment of special-needs students in local public schools is calling now for an independent assessment of what some members call a “broken” educational system. For the second time in three weeks, members of the Special Needs Advocacy Group turned out in force for a meeting of the Katonah-Lewisboro School District board. In-person and by proxy, more than 30 parents and others assailed the district’s handling of disabled, often autistic children and in some cases accused school officials of “gaslighting” the public about restraining the students. Members of the ad hoc body have been publicly protesting at board meetings since May, their presence growing at succeeding sessions. The members have spelled out specific incidents they deem abusive and have called for a number of changes in special-ed policy. The requested changes include a halt, at least for now, in physical restraint or seclusion of students and the introduction of cameras into the district’s four special-needs classes. Two of the self-contained classrooms, as they are known, are at Increase Miller Elementary School in Goldens Bridge while John Jay High School and Middle School in Cross River have one apiece. So far, district officials have not directly addressed the abuse assertions in a public setting—nor have they denied them. Last week, Schools Superintendent Andrew Selesnick posted a letter to the community on the day of the most recent meeting, Aug. 19. In it, he reiterated a new district policy, adopted in the spring, making physical restraints “a last resort, to be used only after all other strategies have been exhausted, and only when the safety of students or staff is at risk.” If a restraint did have to be applied, the superintendent promised, parents would be “notified as soon as possible and no later than the end of the day.” Selesnick also said KLSD was “now vetting outside consultants with expertise in autism, neurodiversity, and communication who will visit this fall and provide us with feedback.”… Miller went on to press the board to approve an outside investigation. “Tonight, I implore you to have the entire program evaluated by an independent, non-biased group with no previous connections to the district,” she said. “If there’s really nothing wrong, then you’ll prove your point,” Miller said, but added the system was “so broken that it’s failing to meet my child’s needs on almost every level.”… In a letter read by Miller, Erika Pierce of Katonah, a Democrat seeking the 2nd District legislative seat, endorsed an outside investigation. “I encourage the district to hire an independent group to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the entire [special-education] program,” Pierce wrote, “so that we can better address the needs of this important part of our school community, especially now as our students and families are trying to get back on track post-COVID.”… Alison Biddle of Cross River, who is seeking a Lewisboro Town Board seat, said she wanted KLSD “to lead the way with policies and programs that help our most vulnerable children.”… Cameras have been a key reform urged by the parents group. The ad hoc coalition emerged this spring amid accusations that parents were not promptly alerted when their children were physically restrained—what district officials term “protective holds” but they have not further defined or described them. In the case that appears to have sparked this spring’s parental fury, the mother of an autistic transfer student said her son had been restrained 34 times over his first two months in middle school before she was notified. That led to a suggested change in district policy requiring “timely” notification whenever a child is physically restrained. But at a board meeting in late May, concerned parents called that time frame too ambiguous and urged a more-specific standard…. In his superintendent’s letter last week, Selesnick said the district’s new restraints policy “requires that parents be notified as soon as possible and no later than the end of the day when a protective hold is used. This summer, our administrators have developed the protocols that will ensure adherence to this important new policy language.” Next month, before district schools reopen Sept. 9, he said, special-needs students and their parents will have the opportunity to meet with teachers from the self-contained classes. … Goglia concluded with a warning. “We will not be ignored. We will not go away,” he said. “Do not underestimate the passion, tenacity and determination of parents with disabled children. Do not underestimate the love we have for our children.”

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