Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

Fifteen parents voiced concerns at the District 65 School Board’s meetings on April 21 and May 12 about how the District evaluates and educates children with disabilities. Some of the parents have children diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

“These are very complex disabilities,” Cari Levin told the RoundTable. “They are very difficult children to work with, even for a highly trained professional. The administration is failing these children and staff by failing to provide an appropriate physical environment for the children and by failing to provide appropriate support for their staff.”

Ms. Levin, a licensed clinical social worker and District 65 parent, is a founder of Citizens for Appropriate Special Education. (CASE). “Our goal is to ensure that children in District 65 receive the special education services they need and deserve,” said Ms. Levin. In a letter to members of the Board, Ms. Levin praised teachers, aides, ancillary staff and specialists for their “caring and dedicated” work. “Where the system breaks down is at the level of the Special Services Supervisors on up,” she said. “The Special Services Administration does not give the school staff enough support through training, clinical supervision, professional development, and additional staff and resources to do their job.”

“We’re looking at children who are challenged in a number of ways,” Superintendent Hardy Murphy told the RoundTable. “Everyone is trying to provide support to children so they can achieve. We are working with parents who are trying to deal with serious concerns. Everyone has to be compassionate.”

Nancy Traver, a member of CASE, said her son, Willie, has a bipolar disorder. She said he suffered emotional breakdowns almost daily; he was suspended almost weekly; he hurt other children, aides and teachers; he begged to stay home; he was failing in every grade; he was barred from riding the bus. “We asked to have him placed in a therapeutic day school,” said Ms. Traver. “The District refused.” She said a social worker said her son was not getting structure at home, and said to take him off sugar. She said, “I don’t feel staff there was trained in working with bipolar children.”

Ms. Traver said she retained a nationally respected child psychiatrist, who diagnosed her child as having a bipolar disorder, and spent $9,000 on an attorney before the District agreed that her son needed private placement in a therapeutic facility.

“I think there are many parents who will tell you that until you hire an attorney, the District will overlook your requests for services,” she said. “Unfortunately, many parents in the District don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer, so their kids are not getting the services they need.”

Ms. Levin told members of the School Board that the District provided her son Sam, who was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, with co-teaching in a general education classroom at Haven, rather than placing him in a self-contained classroom to receive more individualized support. She was told that the Emotional Disability/Behavioral Disorder classroom at Haven had a social environment that would be too “brutal” for her son, and that the school did not have a self-contained classroom available that would meet her son’s needs. She filed a “due process” complaint before a hearing officer appointed by the State Board of Education to seek appropriate placement for her son.

After hearing four days of testimony, the hearing officer determined that the educational program provided by District 65 for Ms. Levin’s son was “an inappropriate, mostly mainstreamed and co-taught IEP, in large classes, with minimal social work and psychological services, from which this particular student would receive little or no benefit.” The order found the District’s program, “does not address his desperate need for specialized instruction in a small controlled environment that will allow him to begin to develop the insight and internal controls he will need to manage his bipolar disorder and to become a functioning, independent adult.” The order further found the District should have trained staff on bipolar disorder and that Sam should receive a special out-of-district placement at the District’s expense.

“The most egregious part of this experience for me was that the administration chose to fight us legally rather than acknowledge that they didn’t have an appropriate placement for my son,” said Ms. Levin. “Our son was suffering socially, failing academically, and falling apart emotionally.”

Other parents had similar stories. Petra Guy told the RoundTable that her son had “awesome, wonderful” teachers at District 65 until her son was placed in a separate special education behavioral disorder class. In that classroom, she said the teacher screamed at students, and that at one meeting the teacher said she had successfully coached prisoners and taught gang members at other schools. The teacher was not aware her child was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder for almost three weeks, Ms. Guy said.

In order to secure a change, Ms. Guy said she had to consult with a professional advocate. “The problem is we have to fight for everything we need. This happens to a lot of low-income and minority families. I have no doubt in my mind.”

While saying her son was now in a self-contained classroom in the District with a wonderful, caring teacher, Ms. Guy added, “Now I have to start to worry about next year; it’s going to be a daily fight.” She said the District should not “make it so hard.”

The teacher referred to by Ms. Guy said her (the teacher’s) comments were taken out of context. The teacher also said parents request that she be their children’s teacher.

Cynthia Rolfe, a parent of a special needs child, said the District is less likely to keep children with autism and emotional illness in the general classroom with aides and services than other elementary schools in the State. She said she was recently appointed the Special Education Parent Liaison for Lincoln School, and she asked parents to speak at the Board’s meeting. “They were afraid that their child’s services will be removed or reduced if they speak out about their frustrations with the Special Services Administration,” she said.

Geneva Oatman, director of special services for the District, said, “In spite of every effort to provide appropriate services and placements, there are still areas where we and parents do not come to total agreement.” She said parents are encouraged to start with their building level staff to resolve disagreements and to work their way up to District administrators if necessary. When disagreements still exist, the State provides three formal mechanisms to resolve differences: a complaint, mediation, and a due process hearing.

There have been a combined total of 2 complaints, 5 mediations, and 4 due process hearings in 2006-07 and 2007-08 according to data presented by Ms. Oatman.

Marge Lenoir-Davis, supervisor of private-day placement for the District, said the District uses consultants and psychiatrists to evaluate students when necessary. She added, “We have provided instruction on bipolar disorder to staff and how it may look in the classroom. We believe we have the appropriate staff, the appropriate knowledge, and the appropriate assistance to make evaluations of students.”

Dr. Murphy said, “Everyone is trying to provide supports so children can achieve. We are wrestling with parents’ expectations. Sometimes there’s a difference of opinion on what’s appropriate, what’s best for a child. We are trying to come up with something that’s effective. I think the District works very hard to address the needs of students, and we place that first.”

Dr. Murphy cited a State Report on Special Education Performance which reflected that 39% of parents of children in pre-K to third grade and 50% of parents of fourth to eighth graders were not satisfied with the educational services their children received. He said these percentages show that “addressing the needs and expectations of children with disabilities is probably the most challenging part of public education. We have to work with all the energy we have to address the concerns,” said Dr. Murphy.

Board member Katie Bailey suggested that the District conduct a parent survey to find out how many District 65 parents are satisfied with the special education services provided by the District and to find out what the issues are. “It would be good to find out where we are with our own District,” she said. While the Board discussed whether to conduct a survey, no decision was made to do so.