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Swansea, MA: Parents slam schools over special ed services

Nov 11, 2022, Fall River [MA] Herald News: Poor communication, dismissive staff: Swansea parents air concerns about special education https://www.heraldnews.com/story/news/education/2022/11/11/parents-raise-concerns-about-special-education-in-swansea-schools/69635220007/

SWANSEA — Parents and family members of disabled students are alleging that Swansea Public Schools has systemic flaws in its special education department, including a culture of poor communication with parents, a tendency to separate special education students from their peers and decisions that amount to discrimination against disabled students.

“This is not a request. This is his right as a human being,” said Melyssa Looker, a mother of a 3-year-old special education student who spoke during the meeting.

The School Committee held a special meeting on Nov. 7 to allow parents and other family members to raise concerns about the special education department.

Several family members relayed that schools at times do an insufficient job of communicating with families and that families have been dismissed and shut down during discussions with school staff about their children’s needs.

“Parents are not treated as experts on their own children… staff who spent two hours with them are,” said Wendy Looker, who spoke on behalf of her grandson.

PARENTS SHARE PERSONAL STORIES

Wendy said assessments meant to determine what sort of services disabled students require are consistently not being completed within the required time frame and that when they are completed, they often include goals for students that are vague and difficult to measure, limiting how much progress students can make. Staff have at times been dismissive to her family, including one Zoom call where a staff member abruptly hung up on them, she said.

Parents said schools in the district are sometimes too quick to place special needs students in separate classrooms instead of providing supports that could help them succeed in integrated classrooms with their general education peers….

Several parents also said their disabled children have been forced to miss substantial amounts of school because schools could not or would not handle their behavior, instead dismissing certain students early…

Nicole Perry, whose now 8-year-old son is currently in an out-of-district placement, said her family was told at one point to pick him up at 1:30 p.m. every day as a way of addressing inappropriate behavior, meaning he missed an hour and a half of school daily for several months.

Her son’s disabilities would sometimes manifest in behaviors like him taking off his clothes while in the classroom, conduct that she alleges school staff labeled “sexually advanced for his age.” The school chose to respond to his outbursts by placing him alone in a conference room with all the furniture removed, sometimes with an armed school resource officer outside, she said.

Superintendent of Schools John Robidoux said it was “not a typical situation by any means” for an SRO to be involved with keeping a student confined to a room.

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM 2017 ASSESSMENT

Several parents and School Committee members raised questions around whether the district had successfully implemented recommendations from a 2017 assessment of the district's special education department performed by an independent educational consultant. The assessment found that Swansea Public Schools were “consistently below the state average” in terms of how much of its school operating budget is spent on special education.

Robidoux said the difference is largely because Swansea has a relatively low number of special education students who are sent out of district, which is costly for schools.

Parents interviewed for the assessment at the time said they had concerns around things like insufficient communication from the schools, IEP assessments not being completed within the required timeframe, not enough special education staff and staff not having sufficient training.

The assessment recommended the district take steps to improve its communication with special education families and place more of a focus on co-teaching instead of placing special education students in separate classrooms, specifically in English and math classes.


Co-teaching involves having multiple teachers, usually one general education teacher and one special education teacher, collaboratively teach the same classroom that includes general education and special education students.

Robidoux said he would plan to have a report on the extent to which schools have implemented recommendations from the 2017 assessment by the committee’s Nov. 28 meeting.

SCHOOL COMMITTEE'S REACTION

School Committee members said much of what parents raised during Monday's meeting was concerning at best, unacceptable at worst.

School Committee member James Carvalho, who suggested they hold Monday’s meeting, said they should continue to have similar meetings in the future and that school administrators should sit down with parents and discuss how to address their concerns.

“I’m gonna fight to make sure things are easier for special ed parents if it’s the last thing I do in this year and a half,” he said, referring to the time left in his current term on the committee. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth White apologized to the family members at the meetings and said their concerns will be addressed.

“My goal would be to at some point gain your trust again in Swansea Public Schools,” she said.