Mayor Scott Avedisian and Superintendent Philip Thornton have jointly requested the state Department of Education conduct an “expedited” review of the district’s special education program “to assure that our work is aligned with researche-based best practice and to assure that our entire learning community, including the public at large whom we serve, is provided accurate information on same.”
The request, made to Mary Ann Snider at RIDE, came the morning after the City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the School Committee to retain an independent investigator to follow up on escalating complaints concerning the treatment of special needs students.
Asked about the timing of the request, Avedisian said he has followed stories about special education and has been working for some time on how best to address the issue. The council Education Outreach Committee’s earlier requests for RIDE to investigate Warwick‘s special education program went nowhere. RIDE responded that there is a protocol for parents with complaints to follow.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur feels the efforts of the council’s EOC to address concerns raised by parents has emboldened a group that theretofore was reluctant to raise issues for fear of retribution.
“This is now becoming an entire community,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve got to get it fixed.” He claims issues being raised are not new, adding, “I’m not going to let it happen on my watch. It happened on their watch, and all they did is watch and didn’t do anything about it.”
Reached Wednesday, Ladouceur said he is “happy to see the mayor and superintendent step up to the plate and follow my lead.” But he is wary of a RIDE investigation unless the department retains an independent investigator who will meet with parents and teachers. He said he doesn’t want complaints to be “dusted over” or a “whitewash” of the issue.
Ladouceur said there is a movement for a class action suit against the school department that could result in a prolonged and costly legal dispute, which he would prefer to see avoided.
“It’s about to explode,” he said.
In the request, the mayor and superintendent point out that RIDE completed a full site monitoring visit of the special education department in 2013 and provided findings and suggestions to the department. They say that department director Jennifer Connolly has been attending to the areas of need highlighted in the report and, “despite these efforts or perhaps in reaction to these efforts, a number of concerns continue to be raised now reaching a level of public scrutiny that perpetuates myth and misinformation rather than reality and research.”
Specific areas requested for review include previous special education programs such as class weighting, co-op formula and stanines versus new Special Education Program design; appropriate identification of students with individual education programs (IEPs) and accusations of administrative directives that IEPs not be followed.
Ladouceur, author of the resolution calling for an independent investigation, told council colleagues Monday that complaints about the Special Education Department continue to grow.
“They are breaking state and federal law,” he charged, “and nobody is doing anything about it except [School Committee member] Karen Bachus.”
Ladouceur said the Education Outreach Committee neither has the resources nor the authority to compel changes, and for that reason the resolution asks for the School Committee to retain an outside investigator.
Ladouceur’s resolution was seconded by a number of council members. Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkson, who noted Ladouceur had been called a bully for his probe into Warwick schools, said, “If you are a bully I stand proudly behind you.”
City Council President Donna Travis said allegations the council is overstepping its bounds are “crazy.”
On Tuesday a RIDE spokesman said the request had been received but there was nothing to report at that time.
Avedisian reasoned a review by RIDE would be better placed than that of an independent investigator hired by the school department because any findings would be presented to RIDE.
“It seems to me we will get it [a review and any directives for change] all done at once,” he said.
“Let us know,” he said of RIDE, “from top to bottom what the deficiencies are and the actions to correct them.”
In a statement Ladouceur said of the request, “How convenient. No surprise. After the City Council, teachers, parents and students do all the heavy lifting, the mayor and the superintendent finally decide to do something. They did not attend the public meeting the EOC and City Council recently held, the mayor has not attended one meeting of the EOC Committee, the superintendent only attended the very first one, no one else from the school department has been attending the meetings of the EOC, etc. Now less than 24 hours after my resolution is unanimously passed by the City Council Monday night and with at least five co-sponsors, the mayor and the superintendent finally decide to follow my lead as well as the lead of Educational Outreach Committee. I am grateful to have their support.”
He continues, “However, this situation requires a complete investigation, not just a feel good overview. This issue will not go away until a full investigation that includes interviewing all teachers, parents, students and anyone else involved or having knowledge of the issues taking place in the Warwick Special Education Department. We owe this to the educators, the parents, the students and the taxpayers who are footing the bill for the 260 million dollar school department budget.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Thornton said that the department reached out to RIDE prior to passage of the council resolution. Asked about the EOC’s request for an investigation, he said, “The EOC has no jurisdiction over the Warwick School Department.”
In addition, Ladouceur said Wednesday after reading the letter to RIDE that it appears the mayor and superintendent by referencing class weighting and issues relevant to the teacher contract is attempting to circumvent negotiations.
In response to Ladoceur’s state, Avedisian said, “Actually, if Councilman Ladouceur would review the numerous comments that I have made on this issue, I have stated for a while that I favored a full investigation by the Rhode Island Department of Education. Several weeks ago, I went to the governor’s office looking for assistance. That is what put the commissioner on the radar screen as to what the Department of Education will agree to do. If Councilman Ladouceur wants to take credit for this issue, then go right ahead. I am only concerned with getting the investigation done and resolved once and for all.”