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Parents of special needs kids unhappy

Laura Evans has watched two of her children slip away into the world of autism. Now she feels their chance at a normal school life is slipping away as well.

Her children, Angela, 14, and Richard, 11, are two of the students in the Life Skills program at North Whidbey Middle School, which is designed to augment the education of special needs students in the district. Children in the class range from mildly to severely mentally or physically disabled. Some spend their entire day in the class, but many venture out to attend regular classes.

To do that, they must be accompanied by an aide. Evans contends that is not being done, and that the required Individual Education Plans are not being followed.

Evans claims Life Skills teacher Jenny Olson and four aides are overwhelmed and unable to properly care for the 15 students in the class.

On a recent afternoon the small room was relatively quiet, as all the girls had gone to the library. A large child for his age, Richard sat at a desk in a corner, separated from the room by a half wall. As his mother worked with him on drawing the alphabet, Richard became agitated. With a howl he suddenly jumped up and flung himself against the wall.

Olson was there in a flash, helping Evans to calm him down. She explained that he was not in his normal routine, and that could throw him off. As Richard settled into drawing with markers, his mother shook her head.

“Jenny is great,” she said. “She really does the best she can.” But Evans was concerned that there was no daily schedule posted for Richard.

“He’s just not being educated at all,” she said.

District officials say the program, and the children, are doing fine.

Laura Rice, special education director, is new to the district this year, but thinks the program is meeting federal standards.

As for the education plans, she trusts the special needs staff to see they are being followed.

Rice said she has not heard of specific cases in which the plans are not being followed, and that they are reviewed periodically with the parents and teachers.

“Kids are general education (students) first,” she said. “Special education is for support.”

There are 652 special needs students in the district; 49 of those have been diagnosed as autistic. Rice said she has heard that number is high, but it was also high in Eatonville, her last assignment.

Numbers also don’t tell the whole story. While autistic children used to be diagnosed only in severe cases, there is now a scale from high to low. The label “autistic” no longer has to mean severely impaired.

North Whidbey Middle School Principal Doug Kyles also believed the district was in compliance with federal special needs education guidelines. He said the individual plans were currently being evaluated.

“As far as I know we have full staffing,” Kyles said, but he acknowledged the program currently has more “severely impacted” students this year.

Evans is not the only unhappy parent. She has a stack of letters from frustrated parents, ready to submit to the school board. Comments range from concerns about a shortage of aides and Individual Education Plans not being followed, to safety issues and a lack of support from the school district.

Parent Chris Becker said she is “very distressed” with the state of the Life Skills classroom this year.

“There is a higher level of need, and not enough staff,” Becker said.

Her daughter Rose, 14, has been in the program for three years, and has a speech-related form of autism. Becker claims her daughter has not had speech therapy since last December. Last year Rose was at a seventh grade spelling level, but she is getting no reading help this year.

“She doesn’t do anything all day,” Becker said. Instead of being educated, Rose spends her days sorting and shredding paper. In the past, Becker said students who were more severely disabled stayed in the LIfe Skills class, while others went to general education classrooms for electives.

While Rice said the district is “doing what we can to prepare children to advocate for themselves and be as independent as possible,” at least half the parents of special needs students in the Life Skills class say that is not happening.

Evans said the parents will continue to work to get their children the help they deserve, and are legally entitled to.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

Community Events, April 2014

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