Parents file petition to force hearing on schools’ autism program

Print This Post Print This Post Jul 27th, 2008 | By admin | Category: Education

By Jeff Yates

For Laurie, a mother of a child with autism, all she wants to do is hear her son’s voice once more.

“My son, two years ago, was making real progress, talking,” she said choking back tears.

But then, his program in the Wilton schools fell apart, she said, the word “regression” became a constant fear and reality, and she felt her pleas to school administrators were falling on deaf ears.

“There isn’t anything more painful than watching your kid slip away,” said Mary, another Wilton mother during a group interview last week. The mothers asked that The Bulletin use their first names only because friends, family and sometimes even the children themselves are not aware that they are autistic.

For the four parents who sat down with The Bulletin, along with 21 others, who carried petitions across town recently, an adversarial, litigious relationship with the schools is not what they want. But they feel the school administration has not taken their concerns to heart, and that the system for parent involvement in special education programming — specifically for the 40 students with autism in the schools — has broken down.

With 64 signatures on a petition, the parents had hoped to force a public hearing before the Board of Education using a little-known state statute that provides for such recourse. Under the statute, “the Board of Education of any municipality, upon written petition signed by one percent of the electors of such municipality or fifty such electors, whichever is greater … shall hold a public hearing on any question specified in such petition.”

The petition was filed with Bettye Ragognetti, town clerk, on Thursday, April 24. On Wednesday morning, Ms. Ragognetti said the petition could not be certified, because the group would need to gather 110 signatures, or 1% of the total number of registered voters, which is just over 11,000. She said even if 110 signatures had been submitted, “a lot of them would be disqualified because they did not have them print their names and some of the signatures you could not read.”

Karen Birck, chair of the Board of Education, wrote in an e-mail to The Bulletin prior to Ms. Ragognetti’s decision that she was waiting to hear back from the town clerk on whether the petition had met the statutory requirements.

“The Board of Education will be commenting on this matter at our meeting on Wednesday,” May 7, she wrote.

One of the parents organizing the petition drive said Wednesday afternoon she had many more signatures, and knew a majority of those who had signed, so getting printed names should not be an issue. She said the goal is to gather at least 500 signatures.

Regardless of whether the petition had statutory power to force the hearing, she said, she hoped the Board of Education would recognize the issue was of significant interest to a large number of parents and residents, and choose to call a public hearing on its own.

Parents

Since the school-funded Autism Program Review report was issued in October 2006, parents said, little to none of the recommended changes had been put in place, and their greatest concern is the time to intervene, and possibly make drastic changes to their children’s education, programs and futures has, in many cases, come and gone.

“Time is being lost,” said Laurie. “Those children who were 4 [when the study was conducted] are now 7.”

“I think that’s why we have so many parents holding petitions, because year after year has gone by,” said Nancy, another mother. “The issue isn’t being treated with the urgency that our children deserve.”

The parents said the mechanisms put in place for parental involvement and interaction with the autism program are broken.

The Autism Task Force, which is comprised of school staff, attorneys and a group of parents, does not allow for much input, Nancy said.

“The Autism Task Force has one selected parent member who’s allowed to speak,” she said, adding the other two parents must remain silent. “I don’t know what intent there is for parental input.”

The Parent Advisory Board was dismantled in 2006, and when it was reconfigured, parents were told they could apply to serve, she said, with the schools choosing the advocates allowed on the board.

What’s more, Nancy said, members of the Board of Education do not attend meetings of the two groups, nor are the meetings recorded. So reports to the school board members come from the administration.

“I just think that there’s too many layers of filter between us and them,” said Mary.

By petitioning for a public hearing, the parents hoped to bring their concerns about the program directly to the policy makers for the schools.

“It really is about the parents wanting to build bridges with the Board of Education,” said Nancy, another mother. “It’s not productive for anybody, and that’s what exists,” she said of the often adversarial relationship between parents and the schools.

Mechanisms

Because parents believe the mechanisms for handling the special education and autism programs have failed at the schools, the petition calls for several changes to be adopted.

The petition’s first request is for “non-exclusionary” parental participation, with an open Autism Task Force made up of parents and school staff, with meetings posted publicly and held monthly. At the task force meetings, public comment periods should be allowed, the petition says, and regular reports should be supplied to the Board of Education.

The petition also asks that a “consistent” Board of Education member be tasked with attending the task force meetings as well as the Parent Advisory Board meetings. Other changes would include more input and interaction between the parents, task force and advisory board and school board when making changes to programs or considering staff hires for the autism program.

The second request is for the schools to conduct a follow-up review of the districtwide autism study that found the schools’ program to be a “systemic failure,” according to parents.

Third, parents want the SPED*NET Wilton handbook Bringing Knowledge to the Table: How to Be an Effective Advocate for Your Child made available to parents at all school sites and sent to parents.

The petition also focuses on the proposed $7.5-million expansion of the Miller-Driscoll School, which officials said is needed to expand the preschool program, which includes a program for children with special needs. The petition suggests that rather than spending the money on expansion only, the schools should consider staff development, support for children and implementing recommendations from the autism study.

The petition also asks for a review of the employment history of Dr. Judy McCarthy in the Wilton autism program.

Finally, the petition seeks the creation of a vocational program for autistic students to work with local businesses to provide marketable job training to some of the students.

A Model

Wilton’s school system is nationally known for the quality of education for typical peers, and the parents think the same should hold true for the students with special needs.

“This is something that is not going to go away,” said Nancy, noting that one out of every 150 children being born is on the autism spectrum. “Now is the time to start the process, start a conversation.”

Parents who have lived and breathed autism research since their children’s diagnosis could be a valuable resource for the schools, if they were allowed to participate more fully in developing a model program for the schools, the parents said

“We’re willing to roll up our sleeves and help the town,” said Mary.

She said a model program wouldn’t be cheap. Some of the higher outplacements for students with autism run well over $100,000 per student per year, but she said if the children aren’t reached at an early age, and don’t receive developmental programs and help that can have significant impacts on their abilities in future years, taxpayers will be picking up the tab for adults in group homes at an even higher cost.

“I think that in Wilton, that could be a fear for the Board of Education,” she said. “If they build a good program, people will move here.”

But that cost shouldn’t stop the schools and town from making such a decision, she added.

“You’re talking about children’s lives,” said Laurie. “This isn’t a bureaucratic decision.”

From the Wilton Bulletin

Information: autismhearing@aol.com

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