Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Catherine Holtman’s name and the nature of her son’s disabilities.
PROVIDENCE — One family after another shared their heartbreaking stories on Wednesday, describing an education system they say is deeply broken for children with special needs.
Schools don’t identify children’s educational and emotional challenges early enough, and sometimes not at all, parents told the Senate Education Committee. Once a student receives an Individual Learning Plan, or IEP, the school drags its feet in carrying out the plan.
When families appeal their child’s IEP, they often find themselves woefully unprepared to argue their case in front of a room full of experts.
And, the families said, it can sometimes take the Rhode Island Department of Education months to hear a family’s appeal, and months more to make a decision.
How a Special Education Ombudsman would help
More than two dozen parents have pleaded with lawmakers to create a special education ombudsman, modeled on the Office of the Children’s Advocatewho serves as a watchdog for children cared for by the Ministry of Children, Youth and the Family.
The office would be independent of the Rhode Island Department of Educationwhich is now responsible for overseeing the school district’s compliance with the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The ombudsman’s office would help families navigate the complexities of the special education system, investigate complaints that school districts are not meeting a child’s IEP requirements, and collect compliance data. schools with federal law, which would be reported to the General Assembly.
The Governor would appoint the Education Ombudsman with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Walter Steenberger said his autistic son was expelled from school after he attempted suicide in his classroom by swallowing a metal carabiner.
“The school said, ‘Can you pick him up?’ “, he said. “It was Christmas Eve.”
After months of trying to get Beacon Charter School to address his son Charlie’s many psychological and neurological issues, Walter and his wife finally found a residential treatment program in Utah that met his needs.
Steenberger said he waited six months for a hearing with the Rhode Island Department of Education and another six months for a decision.
“I don’t want to hear that RIDE works,” he told the committee. “I’m white. I have resources. If I can’t meet my child’s needs, what about the parent in Central Falls or South Providence?”
Beacon said he made “repeated but unsuccessful attempts to engage with the family to plan for the student’s educational needs.” He said the Ministry of Education hearing was delayed due to COVID.
The Department of Education hearing officer found that Beacon “demonstrated concern for the student’s educational needs and properly unenrolled the student from its rosters,” the school said.
Joanna Scocchi, director of The Arc Rhode Island, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, fought for the creation of this office for more than three years.
“My son didn’t find out he had autism until he was 9 years old,” she said. “My son was treated like a disposable child. I didn’t know anything about the system. This education system is so, very broken. This bill gives parents one person to hold RIDE and school districts accountable. ”
Critics of the bill
But several organizations, including the Rhode Island Parent Information Network, which supports families of children with special needs; and the Rhode Island Association of Special Educators, have criticized the bill.
Tim Duffy, director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, suggested expanding the duties of the child advocate to include special education. The existing bill, he said, leaves too many questions unanswered, including the size of the new agency and its cost.
Tim Groves, representing the Association of Rhode Island Administrators of Special Education, said the legislation would create overlapping responsibilities with RIDE. Also, he said, the ombudsman’s investigative powers are vague and could conflict with those of the education department. The bill, he said, would create more confusion, not less.
The Rhode Island Parent Information Network suggested reducing the ombudsman’s role to helping families who have exhausted other avenues of redress and gathering information about gaps in the education system.
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In a letter to the committee, state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green did not take a position on the bill. Instead, she listed steps her office has taken to improve special education services, including a call center, a tool that tracks the types of calls to her office, and collecting data on how disputes are resolved.
Parents have repeatedly described spending thousands of dollars hiring school counselors or lawyers to make their case. They described a labyrinthine system that they found incomprehensible, as their children fell further and further behind, became increasingly discouraged or needed more psychological help.
Catherine Holtman recently served on the Portsmouth School Board. Now she finds herself in “an extremely contentious relationship” with the schools she once represented.
Unable to get all of the tests for her son, who has a learning disability, she said she had no choice but to hire a school counselor and private tutor.
“It has been an exhausting process fighting for basic rights,” she said. “His mental health has been affected. The emotional stress is unbelievable.
This is the third time the bill has been introduced in the Legislative Assembly. It was retained for further study.
Linda Borg covers education for the Journal.