Parents protest after Alpine District’s decision to move special education program

A third-grade classroom in Utah. Parents and Alpine School District officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday after there was a public outcry over the district’s decision to relocate the Life Skills program from Highland Elementary School without public discussion. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

ALPINE — Parents and Alpine School District officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday after there was a public outcry over the district’s decision to relocate the Life Skills program from Highland Elementary School without public discussion.

Parents said that the district hadn’t informed them of the decision and only issued a response as complaints increased. Removing the program from Highland Elementary would move approximately 34 students with disabilities to different schools within the district, likely changing the students’ teachers and classmates. The move would be detrimental to the students’ progression and happiness, parents say.

“For most kids, a routine is important; any kid thrives on stability, consistency and having a routine. There’s all these studies that show that kids thrive on that, but the special needs kids especially thrive and rely on that,” said Chas Carter, a parent.

Rebecca Spencer, whose son is in the Life Skills program at Highland Elementary, said she’s spoken to the district about the effect disruption has on the children.

“For years I have been talking with the school district, every time they’ve moved or tried to move my son, on how this is harmful,” said Spencer. “It’s so disruptive, and he can regress. Every time I’ve talked with them, they’ve been kind, but they’ve seemed to indicate this is a really unique situation but we’ll support you and let’s figure something out, but then it just (keeps happening) year after year.”

When her son Paul was moved, Spencer said at best it would take two months for him to adjust to the program and for the teachers to understand how to help him best succeed; at worst, an entire year could be lost with zero academic progress. On one occasion, Spencer herself taught her son to read by hiring a tutor to teach her how to work with her son’s needs because he was not being successfully taught at school that year.

Parents said that when their students moved into the Highland Elementary program there was a noticeable difference as the students began to thrive.

“This has been an ongoing frustration for us as a family, but I think it’s compounded by the fact that you take kids who are literally almost broken by this process of being shuffled around from school to school and you land them in Highland Elementary and the program is such a shining success,” said Spencer. “There’s nothing that compares to this inclusion. I just cannot fathom whatever reason they have, and perhaps it’s really good — I don’t know, there isn’t communication — but whatever reason they have for taking this program down and just totally dismantling it.”

That inclusiveness of the program is appreciated by all parents within the elementary school, even those without students in the Life Skills program.

“Removing that program from our school affects all of our children directly because we will lose the opportunity to have those types of interaction,” said PTA President Jana Allen. “They are a part of a group where they aren’t pushed into a corner. I think our principal Reed Houghton, who has a son with Down syndrome, has really created this environment, that I don’t know can be replicated somewhere else.”

Regarding inclusion, parents worry that the student’s Individualized Education Programs won’t continue with the same momentum as the Highland Elementary Life Skills program.

“At a high level it’s the same, but the way it’s executed is completely different,” said Carter.

Parents of students in the Life Skills program at Highland Elementary School have told Alpine School District that their fight would continue by any means necessary, including litigation.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), which passed in 1990, requires public schools to create an Individualized Education Program for students eligible under both the federal and state eligibility disability standards. An IEP specifies services that need to be provided to the child and how often, necessary modifications or accommodations needed for the student and the student’s current level of performance.

The IEP is among one of the six pillars outlines in the IDEA act, others include:

  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) — a school must provide free education services that meet a child’s unique needs
  • Least restrictive environment (LRE) — regulations in the act state that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities including children in public or private institutions or care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled.”
  • Appropriate evaluation — Appropriate evaluation is needed to determine the child’s placement
  • Parent and teacher participation — communication between both parties to benefit the child
  • Procedural safeguard — the ability to challenge decisions made that parents or teachers feel are inappropriate for the student.

Highland Elementary parents point to the Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District which states the number one consideration above all else is the best interest of the children. “A focus on the particular child is at the core of IDEA,” the court stated.

Some of the considerations the district outlined in an email to parents included class sizes, boundaries seeing an increase of Life Skills students, students with and without IEPs spending the same amount of time in school, students with transportation service on their IEP arriving on time, busing concerns including training of drivers and time spent on the bus, and the recent change in school time at Highland Elementary School.

But parents said that those considerations shouldn’t factor into the decision.

“We just feel like the district is choosing to inconvenience this smaller group of kids, who most people would agree need the stability the most to be able to succeed, and we’re the ones that are suffering from that,” said Carter. “They say it’s not because of budget issues or transportation issues and if that’s the case, then I would like to understand what is fueling the change because it seems like there could be easy solutions to resolve this issue”

Parents pointed to the communication district officials consistently held with parents in general education programs. Included in that divide, the parents pointed to the fact that general education students are less likely to be moved than their Life Skills program counterparts. A study conducted by the parents and a statistician revealed that in Alpine School District the small group education classes are 10.5 times more likely to experience a boundary change between grades than the general education students.

“As a parent, that is devastating that they would value one of my children over another, and they would provide one consistency over another, like I just can’t fathom how we’ve gotten to this point,” said Spencer.

Alpine School District’s response

Alpine School District issued a statement which read in full:

“Alpine School District ensures that all students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) are provided with a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE). While all of our schools offer Special Education Services for students, we also offer various small group settings with more specialized services in certain schools throughout the district. The district regularly looks at the home locations of students in these programs and will periodically move the program so that it is in closer proximity to the majority of students’ homes, thus reducing the time required to transport students on a bus. A small group is not being shut down, but the location adjusted based on these criteria.

“Moving a student to a new location is always driven by the IEP and a commitment to deliver the services outlined in it. The same opportunities for inclusion, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy are available at every school. Building administrators and teacher teams, including both special and general educators, are committed to and supported in educating all students, including students with special needs.

“Parents and district personnel are currently talking through immediate concerns regarding the locations of special classes that have been brought up. Those conversations will continue to inform specific challenges now as well as open the door to addressing the need to honor consistency for students and families.”

Moving forward

Parents and district officials are scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the changes and navigate solutions. A group of parents and community members plan to meet at the building with signs as a show of solidarity and support. Parents said the district gave them the impression that the meeting would discuss upcoming changes and a plan for the special education programs moving forward. The board also indicated it may hold meetings in the future to look into the program.

“I don’t want to take anyone down. I don’t want to disrupt anything. I just need them to fix what’s wrong,” said Spencer. “You can either say something was really wrong, and we’re fixing it, or these people had a huge fight, and public opinion didn’t go our way and now we’ve had to fix it. I’m really hopeful that the community understands, why marginalize a group of the sweetest, most amazing children that you’d ever be privileged to know?”

The community’s support has been reflected in a petition which has garnered over 7,000 signatures.

If parents disagree with the district’s decisions in the meeting, IDEA allows “Stay Put” rights which allow the student to stay while parents and the school go through dispute resolution, mediation or civil litigation.

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