Parents, students and educators gathered to air their grievances last Wednesday night in regards to special education in Warwick’s schools, and the hearing doesn’t promise to be an end to the discussion.
The forum lasted about three hours and more than 30 people spoke. Those who hosted the forum are planning to review testimony and decide upon appropriate further actions.
City Councilman Ed Ladouceur called for the forum after hearing a myriad of comments, complaints, and concerns from Warwick residents about special education programs in the city.
Ladouceur was joined by Council President Travis, Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, Councilman Thomas Chardonet and the Warwick Community Outreach Educational Committee. The panel was strict in keeping speakers on the subject of special education and told speakers not to mention student names or specific cases so as not to violate confidentiality.
“There are questions about whether or not federal and state guidelines are being followed by folks running the special ed department,” Ladouceur said. “I don’t know that. I’m not an educator. All I know is what you folks tell us.”
Travis was particularly frustrated.
“I’m tired of hearing ‘you’re the city, you can’t get involved. The school does its thing.’ That’s so wrong. These are our kids and we have to get involved,” she said
Teachers were among the first to voice their frustrations.
“As this year started, we were told that we would have at least one support person in the way of a social worker, guidance counselor, psychologist in our building per day of the week. There has been some consistency,” said one. “Unfortunately, the need in our building has increased and the resources are still not adequate.”
Educators said their classrooms have turned into “chaotic and unsettling” environments. They described students displaying aggression and directing profane language toward others, running around, causing disruptions, and screaming and yelling in classes. Many asserted that the schools are violating IEPs (individual education programs).
“Yesterday, two children played in the sink while I was teaching a math lesson and overflowed the sink onto my floor and into the next classroom. I have been requesting assistance from administration since day one,” said a teacher. “Administration says they understand and will be providing support. But these children have already lost at least 34 days. It is unfair that these children are not in placement that best meets their needs and it isn’t legal that their IEP times are not being met at this time.”
One overwhelmed teacher described his class load. One of his classes has 28 students and numerous IEPs and he has another of 24 with 15 IEPs, 11 of which are intensive ed, and two English language learners, he said. He told the committee it is difficult to see that all these students’ required needs are met.
“Many of my students need preferential seating as part of their IEPs,” he said. “It’s really not possible in a class of 28 to give preferential seating to everyone who needs it.”
One allegation that was particularly disturbing to panel members was that educators were being directed not to seek assistance from the Kent Center or call 911 during crisis situations. One educator claimed she heard the instruction was coming from the school.
“Just last week I heard that [when] there is a behavior crisis of mental health in which a child is in severe danger of harming themselves or others, we are not calling Kent Center directly,” she said.
A school psychologist who spoke at the forum couldn’t provide specific details, but said she knew of situations where “we’ve been directed not to call 911 or the Kent Center but to de-escalate the child and send them back to class.”
On Thursday, Travis said what she heard at the forum was “unbelievable,” “heartbreaking” and that students are not getting the help they need.
“I just can’t believe it got to this point,” she said.
Travis said she plans to personally speak with Superintendent Thornton on the issue and that the Outreach Committee will meet again to review the information they have and discuss what’s next.
Ladoucer seconded Travis’s sentiments, saying he was “taken aback by the seriousness and quantity of issues” people discussed at the meeting. He said he has total confidence that the comments made were accurate as the individuals were made very aware that their on the record comments were being recorded for documentation and review.
“Among other things, I have reached out to a separate firm to assist me in this matter. I am sure the EOC will be calling for a follow-up meeting in the very near future,” he said. “I will wait for the discussion and input from my colleagues on the committee to decide on my next steps in dealing with these issues. I have been contacted by many people that were not able to attend the meeting but are ready and anxious to get involved.”
Special Education Director Jennifer Connolly and Superintendent Philip Thornton were not available for comment.