OPRF must address TEAM program problems

Opinion

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At the April 21 OPRF school board meeting, special ed parents, supporters, and other audience members were taken aback to hear Superintendent Susan Bridge accuse parents of "an increasingly distorted portrayal of the special ed program." In a report on Channel 2 News on April 26 regarding a spanking incident at the high school, Supt. Bridge said the school had done a thorough investigation and discovered no evidence of mental or physical abuse.

Yet in the last month, Supt. Bridge; Phil Prale, assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction; and parents have heard and read statements from 10 individuals concerning mistreatment and neglect of TEAM students (TEAM is a program at OPRF for students with cognitive disabilities). These statements come from two former OPRF employees, six parents, and two OPRF honors graduates. It is difficult to understand how everything that those individuals saw and heard has been deemed inconsequential. Here are just a few examples:

In April, 2004, a parent who was dropping some clothes off in a TEAM classroom found the students sitting in the dark with an aide at the computer with her back to the students. By the time she exited the building, she was told at the front desk that she could not make unannounced visits to TEAM?#34;they would have to call the classroom first to tell them she was coming.

On May 6, 2004, four parents observed an aide crossing Oak Park Avenue with three students. She was talking on her cell phone and never looked back to see that one of the students was 10 feet behind her in the middle of the street.

When a student reported on June 10, 2004, to her parents that she had been spanked by that same aide, the "investigation" did not even include an interview with the student or her parents. The testimony of another student who corroborated the spanking was dismissed. Despite a written commitment from OPRF on August 23, 2004, that this aide would no longer have any contact with the student she spanked, the aide has accompanied that student to her job site weekly. (It was stated at the April 21 board meeting that OPRF did not report this incident to DCFS until March, 2005.)

On March 17, 2005, a former OPRF employee in the TEAM program met with Asst. Supt. Prale and parents. That person reported observing the above-mentioned aide very close to a student's face, counting to five, and bringing her hand down with a chopping motion towards the student with each count. The former employee stated that the student was very agitated and the aide's actions were inappropriately threatening.

Despite parents' requests to at least move that aide to another position, she is still in the jobs program at OPRF and continues to work with disabled students.

On March 17, 2005, the former employee also reported that wheelchairs were used to block the classroom doors so that a student who wandered could not get out. On at least one occasion a student was in the wheelchair when it was used as a door block.

On March 14, 2005, another former employee met with Asst. Supt. Prale and parents. This person reported that from the first day on the job, there was "almost constant, unnecessary, mean yelling at the students." This employee heard students being called "stinky," "disgusting," "lazy," and "baby" to their face in derogatory tones.

In an April 18, 2005 letter to OPRF, one of the former OPRF honors students reported: "I saw students being ridiculed or neglected by members of the staff. It was commonplace that in their 'instruction,' aides would yell at the students in an effort to solve a problem. Instead of acting as a friend and helper of the students, some aides would play the role of the bully." On April 11, 2005, another student described several incidents and then wrote, "These types of belittlement and humiliation were regular occurrences." These honors students were volunteers in a class with TEAM students.

Undoubtedly there are kind, caring staff members working with disabled students at OPRF, but it is difficult to comprehend how administrators can ignore the evidence and continue to portray the TEAM program in a positive light. The statements presented to the administration show that the problems in the program are not just due to a few teacher aides. Another TEAM parent wrote, "I saw a staff member treat a TEAM student in a way that I felt was hurtful and unacceptable. The aide then defended her actions to me as routine among those who work with this child. Instead of being treated respectfully for bringing this to the attention of the [TEAM] administration, attempts were continually made to discredit and diminish my experience."

Children with mental impairments are the most vulnerable students in our schools, and as parents we are very concerned about how they are treated. Some of our children are nonverbal; they can't tell us what happens at school. Even those with good verbal skills are often unable to distinguish between what is appropriate behavior from adults and what is inappropriate.

We implore Dr. Bridge and the OPRF administration to take the evidence presented by these employees, parents and students seriously and to rise to the challenge of addressing this complex issue in an effective, decisive manner.

Debbie Bray, Vince Bray, Terry Burke, Scott Berman, Carolyn Effgen, David Effgen, Gwen Gotsch, Inah Koss, Mike Koss, Judy Law, William Ho, Pat Nassano, Rich Miller, Pati O'Connor, Charlie O'Connor, Beverly Shaw, Joanne Taylor present and future TEAM parents

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