DALLAS — Saturday’s meeting between Dallas School District officials and parents of students in special education revealed concerns ranging from lack of staff qualifications to parents being in the dark about their children’s progress at school.
The meeting is the product of the district searching for ways to proactively solve problems after being found in violation of students’ rights in five special education complaints.
District officials, including Superintendent Michelle Johnstone and board member Michael Blanchard attended the meeting. Johnstone thanked the parents for their honesty. “We can’t get better if we don’t know what the issues are,” Johnstone said. “We really do want to resolve what is happening in our district.”
Cheryl Cisneros, the executive director of Dallas nonprofit Creating Opportunities, a special education advocacy group, moderated the forum.
Cisneros said she contacted Disability Rights of Oregon after noticing what she thought was a troubling trend in the district’s use of abbreviated days for students on individualized education programs. She said IEP teams for students she worked with weren’t providing a clear timeline for reintegrating students to full days.
“What is supposed to happen if there are reduced days, is a very specific plan, a time-lined plan in place. How are we going to get them back into school as quickly as we can?” she said. “I wasn’t seeing that happen. It was very ambiguous.”
She said getting DRO involved resulted in four of the five complaints being filed with the Oregon Department of Education. Cisneros said Dallas Special Education Director Autymn Galbraith and Johnstone contacted her about collaborating to find solutions. She agreed to help.
Saturday’s meeting and a second outreach opportunity at Dallas Family Night Out on Aug. 22 are the result of that partnership, as is a superintendent’s advisory committee on special education that will begin meeting in September.
“We want to make sure that the result of this is actual action steps that the district is going to take,” she said.
Parents at the meeting had a list of concerns including:
• Teachers’ aides who are not qualified to work with special education students.
• Feedback on student progress was nonexistent, or lacking detail that could allow parents to address issues or continue education at home.
“I don’t want to know that my daughter didn’t have a melt down today,” said a parent at the meeting. “I should get descriptive communication saying what we worked on and this is how well it went, and this is how we finished the day.”
• Students’ general education teachers weren’t aware of IEPs and how students were progressing toward goals. Special education teachers weren’t communicating well with general education teachers and aides working with students.
• School officials offered medical advice or changed medication schedules without parent permission or knowledge.
• Goals set for students weren’t challenging enough to result in meaningful progress or educators exhibited a belief that students were incapable of learning, especially those with communication impairments.
“That has been our experience,” said parent Audra Marsh. “An attitude that a child is unable to learn based on their output.”
• Students weren’t allowed to move in their seats or pace if movement helped them concentrate.
“You just need to meet kids where they are at and let them roam or whatever,” said parent Kisha McIntosh. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention or aren’t learning the content.”
• Bus drivers who are not trained to deal with behavior issues or bullying while children are on the school bus.
“I know I’m one of several parents who has a child with autism,” said Dave Leaton. “The bus drivers have no training or support for solving issues on the bus. For three years I’ve watched my son regress because of what happens on the bus. It affects his whole day at school.”
Parents also offered suggestions to the district to help smooth the process.
Several parents asked for training to parents before IEP meetings are scheduled to provide parents with their rights and responsibilities.
McIntosh said IEP meetings can be intimidating for parents.
“They race through it. There’s a lot of jargon. It’s like a presentation,” McIntosh said. “For the parent, 99 percent of the time this doesn’t make sense to them, but it kind of sounds cool. It’s intimidating and often when a parent does speak up and ask a question, it’s interpreted as threatening.”
Marsh suggested parents and educators work together to analyze when behavior problems arise during the day to see if there is a cause that can be addressed. She said it could be that a child struggles with a certain subject or simply needs a break at a certain point in the day.
“That is the time that we should be pulling them out for specialized instruction or that we are building in a break for them, so they can go and take time, so they can focus on their education,” Marsh said.
Leaton, who is a special education teacher, said he understands the challenges facing teachers, but questions whether they have been adequately trained in special education.
“Maybe we should look at how many teachers have never really been educated on what special education is supposed to be,” he said.
Johnstone said that parents will have another opportunity to provide feedback at back-to-school event Dallas Family Night Out on Aug. 22 at Dallas United Methodist Church, 565 LaCreole Drive.
The district will have a booth at the event from 4 to 8 p.m. where parents can talk to administrators.
In September a superintendent’s advisory committee on special education will begin working on a plan to address parent concerns. It will meet monthly and will continue to evaluate the plan after it’s in place.
“We really want to get a plan in place, so that we can meet the needs of all of our kids,” Johnstone said. “That will be the task of this committee coming up, to actually come up with that plan and then monitor it.”
Johnstone said anyone interested in serving on the committee or wanting to provide more feedback should contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cisneros said the second reason DRO filed the complaints was an attempt to have ODE provide more support and resources for the district.
“We were hoping they would see the need of the district. It’s not just the need of the child, it’s the need of the district, too,” she said. “The educators in schools, they need more support. That was our other purpose in filing the complaint the way that it was done.”
That wasn’t successful as ODE judged itself as adequately providing for special education in Dallas.
She said she isn’t sure what the next steps will be to address funding, but she’s pleased at what she believes is progress locally.
“Her (Johnstone’s) concern is genuine, from my prospective. I wouldn’t be putting this work into this if I didn’t feel it was genuine. I’m really optimistic about that,” she said. “I’m really excited that parents were heard today. They said it went better than they had hoped.”