Educations department probes special ed incidents
Eagle-Tribune - 4/23/2017
April 23--PELHAM -- The Office for Civil Rights is investigating a claim that an autistic sixth-grader was discriminated against and harassed by faculty at Pelham Memorial School last year, leading to his departure from the district.
Susan and Kevin Mcintyre, parents of 11-year-old Nathan Mcintyre, are calling for the removal of Principal Stacy Maghakian, a public apology for a specific incident last October, and mandatory training for the rest of the middle school staff on how to interact with special needs students.
According to a Department of Education spokesperson, the complaint was filed Feb. 16 and deemed worthy of investigation April 3. The Office for Civil Rights, a sector of the department, is tasked with identifying discrimination and other unlawful acts, as well as taking action to correct such problems.
The day after the Mcintyres filed their complaint, another autistic student, eighth-grader Max Bedard, said he was mistreated at a school dance for reasons related to his disability.
During that situation, which garnered national attention, Max's mother, Michelle, said that her 14-year-old's sensory issues were not taken into consideration when he was turned away from the dance for wearing a cotton shirt and pants that didn't follow the dress code, the boy said.
Both families want to see a change in policy and philosophy when it comes to accommodating special needs students, specifically at the middle school.
"The greater goal, with this suit, is to get the district to stop harassing these kids so something like this never happens again," Kevin Macintyre said.
His wife agreed, adding, "Nathan is not the only one this is happening to."
Superintendent Amanda Lecaroz, however, said that the school has been consistently prepared to work with special needs students and their parents, providing resources and customized programs based on need.
She said the students each have an Individual Education Plan. The process includes a team of parents, teachers, administrators and specialists that is revised each year from the time a child enters the district.
"When I started (five years ago), the director of student services started at the same time, and we realized that an area that needed improvement was transitioning kids," she said. "We created a special education parent group, which meets monthly and sends out a bi-annual survey where we ask for feedback about making changes to programming. It's been a focus for the last two years."
The Pelham School District has received a copy of the Office for Civil Rights complaint, but administrators say they are not legally able to talk about specifics of the case.
TROUBLE AT THE OUTSET
The Macintyres say trouble began when their son was not transitioned into the school properly -- despite their personal efforts to develop a plan the December before -- and then scolded for not assimilating.
"He did beautifully in elementary school. He even worked down to a shared aid, from a 1-on-1 situation, to only needing an aid somewhere in the room. I didn't want that progress lost," Susan explained. "But we knew that the changes that come with middle school would be a lot for him. We wanted to assure he was ready and the transition was smooth."
The Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether district officials followed through with their obligation to document a transition plan.
"His written prior notice (a legal document), as late as Sept. 28, said 'develop plan'," Susan said. "When they should have started that in earnest."
She attributes most of her son's suffering to there being "no plan for him even seven weeks into the school year."
The boy describes his feelings simply.
"I felt horrible, mad and angry a lot," Nathan recalled.
Lecaroz said she believes the district's Individual Education Plan process is "pretty successful with the majority," adding that the IEP teams unique to each child communicate throughout the year.
"The special education teacher is also the students' case manager," she said. "But it takes cooperation on everyone's part."
Max's mother said her son's experience was comparable to the one that Nathan's family describes.
"He was flunking everything at first (in sixth grade), which was so unlike him," she said. "His aide was the one that should have been redirecting things at that point, but once I started making suggestions on what should be done, like putting him in a different math class, he started thriving again. They didn't know how to deal with him or his anxiety."
She said other parents of special needs children in town have similar stories.
INCIDENT PROMPTS COMPLAINT
The OCR complaint filed by the Mcintyres claims that Principal Maghakain and Assistant Principal Jessee Haarlander approached Nathan in a classroom Oct. 3, 2016, and "chastised him for failure to show respect" when he turned his chair and avoided eye contact, a tendency they say is rooted in his diagnosis.
"Nathan was belittled and things got really, really bad," Susan said. "He's willing to speak about it now because he doesn't want other kids to go through what he has."
Superintendent Lecaroz reiterated that she is unable to legally comment on this incident.
Maghakian went on to question him for "not being able to attend class," and tell him that she "did not understand why he didn't want to go to class and be with his friends and be happy," according to the Macintyres' complaint.
"She kept on ranting and going on and saying stuff," Nathan said. "Then she left the room with Mr. Haarlander and they were watching me as a I sat there and bawled my eyes out."
The encounter allegedly happened after Nathan's aide was dismissed from the room, leaving him alone with the administrators.
Nathan's final day at Pelham Memorial was 10 days later.
During that time, the complaint reads, he was forced to complete his school work in a separate room with "students who were significantly more impaired than him," and who displayed "behaviors that were disruptive and upsetting to Nathan."
His aide began carrying a walkie-talkie, a change that led Nathan to believe that he was in trouble and being targeted by staff, according to the family.
His parents said they feared it was retaliation for the earlier run-in with Maghakian and Haarlander.
"My son has autism," Susan said. "He has issues with executive functioning and socializing. This was one of numerous occasions where (the principal) was completely insensitive to that. OCR is also looking into the fact that the school moved him into that new room without telling us."
She said Nathan became suicidal after the incidents, and now receives a private education an hour from home that costs upwards of $50,000 per year for tuition. They did not want the school named publicly.
Though the facility is known for hosting special needs students, Kevin Mcintyre has noticed social drawbacks and a withdrawn tendency in his son since enrolling him. He's begun communicating with strangers, in part, by writing on a whiteboard.
With high school forthcoming, Susan said she'd love for her son to go to the recently renovated Pelham High, but is unsure what Nathan will want based on his past experiences in town.
For now, the sixth-grader said he's especially enjoying science and math classes, but misses the local friends he was used to seeing daily.
The Department of Education has not given the Mcintyres a sense of how long the investigation will take.
A spokesperson confirmed that there is only one pending case against the Pelham School District at this time.
Attempts to reach Maghakian and Haarlander went unanswered.
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