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November 21, 2002

Special-needs pupils most affected by BEA strike

From: Billings Gazette, MT
Nov. 21, 20002

of the Gazette Staff
Some parents of special-needs students have accused Billings Public Schools of violating their children's rights during the teachers strike, but none has filed a formal complaint with the Office of Public Instruction in Helena.

Seven Billings families have inquired about their children's rights, said Joe Lamson, OPI's communications director. School District 2 has more than 2,000 special-needs students, he said.

Federal law guarantees special-education students the right to an education.

"If a school is open, it needs to provide services for all of its students," Lamson said.

If schools are closed, the district is not obligated to provide services.

"If a parent of a student believes they are having their rights denied or they're not being served, they need to file a complaint with OPI," Lamson said.

The measure of whether a child is receiving appropriate services is the child's Individual Education Plan, which defines educational goals, said Tim Harris at OPI. Harris mediates conflicts between parents and schools over special-education issues.

"We look at the IEP, see what's in it and discover what was and was not provided," he said.

Some parents have chosen not to send their children to school during the strike, Harris said.

"We can't assume that the school has failed to provide free appropriate public education," he said. "If a parent decides not to send their kid, we can't judge a school based on the parent's assumption. The parent has to send their child to school before we can say we have a breach here."

If he receives a formal complaint, he has 15 business days to investigate the situation.

"The goal is to meet the Individual Education Plan, and that's what we're doing," said Susan Lubbers, a spokewoman for the school district.

"We do have special education in all the schools," Lubbers said. "We have nursing services available as identified in the IEP. The principals know the needs of the children in each one of those classrooms and know the needs are being met for those children."

If staff or nursing help is not available on a given day, a principal can tell a parent that services aren't available and send a child home. That child will be given a makeup day, Lubbers said.

Stacey Warburton, the parent of a special-needs child, claims the school district has violated her child's rights.

Warburton said she talked to her school's principal last week about her daughter, Danielle, returning to school on Monday. Warburton said she was told that the school didn't have the staff to support her daughter.

At first, safety concerns prompted Warburton to keep her 10-year-old daughter at home. Danielle is profoundly deaf and has multiple disabilities including cerebral palsy. She uses an electric wheelchair and a communication device that resembles a small laptop computer. She does basic sign language using her feet.

"It's not like anybody can walk in and communicate with her," Warburton said. "She's nonverbal, so, if something were to happen, there's no way she could communicate that."

Warburton sent e-mails to school administrators and OPI questioning how the school was going to comply with her daughter's IEP.

Shannon Grimm sent her son to school for one day Monday, but took him out of school after lunch. Her son, a fifth grader who has Tourette Syndrome and other accompanying disorders, is in a special classroom at Boulder Elementary. The combined class was being taught by instructional aides who are normally in the classroom, she said.

Her son told her that he asked the aides if they were teachers. When the aides said "yes," he asked why they were not carrying signs. Grimm said he was told that there were teachers who wanted to teach and teachers who wanted to carry signs.

"I didn't feel comfortable because they were discussing the strike with him and discussing it with an opposing view," Grimm said.

Although his replacement teachers encouraged her to leave him in school, Grimm said she did not think the school was prepared to handle him.

"No one seemed to know about the medication he takes," she said.

Her son also told her that he didn't feel comfortable doing the work and that it was different from what he was used to.

Cheryl Stewart is satisfied with the way her principal has handled her questions about the strike. She chose not to send her grandson to school, mainly because he has bonded so well with his regular classroom teacher.

"I don't feel the subs know how to understand the behaviors that could happen," said Stewart, who has custody of her 7-year-old grandson.

The principal at Meadowlark School called twice to explain the situation and urged her to use her own discretion, she said.

Although she has no problem taking care of him at home, keeping him occupied is a challenge, and he misses his schoolmates.

Linda Long intends to take her son to Poly Drive School today for the first time since the strike began. Although she supports the teachers, she cannot afford to keep her son out of school.

Long, a single parent and her son's sole provider, works as a secretary at the Bureau of Reclamation. She ran out of paid leave and was forced to take the last five days as unpaid leave.

"Like most single parents, I live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "That's what's pushing me to go ahead. I really don't want to do it. It's just not where my heart is."

She talked to her school's principal this week and was impressed by the principal's desire to meet her son's needs.

She describes her son as a high-functioning autistic child with some other disabilities.

"Sending him into a day-care situation wouldn't be helpful to him and would create problems for the day-care providers," she said.

The teachers strike has also had a financial effect on two youth group homes run by STEP, an organization that helps individuals with disabilities.

The two homes have nine students, one in elementary school and eight high-school students. All of them have stayed out of school during the strike, said Gary Garlock, the program's administrator.

Staffing the additional daytime hours has cost the program an extra $400 a day.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.