Sparks didn’t quite fly, but the atmosphere definitely heated up several degrees, as parents of children in Oak Park and River Forest High School’s special education TEAM program voiced their dissatisfaction with the high school administration at the District 200 board meeting last Thursday night.
Supt. Susan Bridge, in turn, responded in a simmering, measured manner that exhibited thinning patience and politeness.
In a later interview, Bridge emphasized the “complex and long-term” aspects of the ongoing disagreement. She characterized her board meeting comments not as emotional but as purposeful. “I did think it was time to speak about how our school saw this (situation). This negative portrayal of the TEAM program is inaccurate, unfair and unfortunate,” said Bridge.
There have been two main sources of conflict between the parents of this group of more profoundly disabled special ed students and school administrators the past 18 months. One relates to the adoption of an educational approach- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)- which numerous parents contend is a more effective approach to working with mentally disabled children than the district’s current approach. The other is the deepening perception by some parents that the school and special education administration are unresponsive to parental concerns over both curriculum and student safety issues. Of particular concern to parents is a teacher’s aide who they contend has repeatedly shown herself to be both irresponsible and inappropriate in dealing with special education students.
OPRF has nearly 500 students classified as part of special education. However, according to parent Pat Nassano, only about 10 percent of those are classified as trainable mentally handicapped, and of that group, around 20 are being educated in classrooms on the OPRF campus, in what is called the TEAM program, in two groups of 10 each. The balance of the trainable mentally handicapped students receive services through off-campus programs paid for by the district.
A number of TEAM parents have been working with school administrators to get ABA adopted, and to address safety and sensitivity concerns.
The four adult speakers who addressed the board Thursday night stressed that they were only interested in addressing student safety that evening. All expressed growing frustration with what they said was resistance and even disrespect from members of the school’s administration.
Carolyn Effgen flatly told the board that she believes there is a “crisis in leadership” in the special ed program, and said she was most upset at what she saw as a lack of action on allegations against the aide.
“Why hasn’t the teacher’s assistant cited been removed?” Effgen asked. “We do not see how this can go on with no consequences.”
Rich Miller, whose daughter was called into a private meeting with the Directors of Special Ed and Personnel, criticized the administration for not informing him of that meeting.
“Her best advocates, her best protectors, were not informed,” Miller said.
Another parent, Peggy Morrow, said that her interaction with Special Ed staff had been “marked by instances of obstruction,” and “polite inaction.”
Special education parent Ruth Rankin told board members that she didn’t believe school staff and administrators appreciated the depth of feeling parents had for their children’s vulnerability. Those feelings have been rubbed raw by alleged instances of TEAM staff misbehavior that some parents say has included ridicule, yelling, threats, humiliation and bullying.
“We’re talking about children who can’t defend themselves, nor can they explain what happened,” said Rankin. “We live and breathe that vulnerability every day.”
Acknowledging that there are good, dedicated staff in the TEAM program, Rankin said the responsibility lies with the school’s administration, and expressed doubt in the ability of those administrators to effectively deal with parental concerns.
“We cannot rely solely on the very administration that has failed to direct our children,” Rankin said.
After the last speaker sat down, Bridge asked Assistant Supt. Phil Prale to give a summary of the steps taken by special ed staff to address the parent’s concerns.
After reviewing the issues raised and the administration’s response to them, Prale told the parents, “We may not be doing all that you wish of us, but we are not marginalizing parents and children.”
Bridge then spoke in measured tones, telling the speakers that she “perceive(d) an increasingly distorted portrayal of the special ed program.” She was experiencing, she added, “her own personal disconnect, bordering on anger.”
After a conciliatory note that her anger “dissolves when I think of the needs of the 498 (special education) students, and the courage it takes for their parents to advocate so strongly,” Bridge turned stern.
“I have to be honest with you,” she told the parents, “we are all in danger of losing our trust in your thoughtfulness and in your motives.”
Addressing both of her critic’s complaints, Bridge said “We’ll not capitulate to demands to fire staff without cause, and to change methodologies.”
“It has not been months without action,” she concluded.
Nassano, who noted that Bridge and Prale have never deemed it necessary to respond to TEAM parents comments prior to last Thursday, wasn’t buying their arguments afterwards.
“A lot of the things they said were very blurry,” she said. Prale’s comments, she added, were particularly objectionable.
“I think it’s safe to say that there are inaccuracies in Phil’s statements,” she said.
Nassano said there were three points they stressed at an April 8 meeting with Prale that haven’t been satisfied/ First, they wanted training for staff in the Verbal Behavior ABA training for staff. Second, that the staff have sensitivity training, and third, that the specific teacher’s assistant that they say has shown a pattern of insensitive and irresponsible behavior be removed from the program.
In an interview Tuesday, Bridge defended administrators Linda Cada and Phil Prale, insisting that they have “been walking hand in hand with parents through all their concerns.”
Bridge said she didn’t want to diminish the validity of parental concern, saying “I do understand the emotional intensity of these parents.” But, she reiterated, she and her administrators will not be pressured into taking actions they believe to be unwarranted.
Bridge also challenged critical TEAM parents to be more specific about the what, when and where of their accusations, specifying which children have been mistreated, in what manner, and at what time.
Bridge also stressed that whatever disagreement she expressed last Thursday night, she and her staff are committed to continuing to deal with any and all parental concerns.
“Just because we chose to speak doesn’t mean we’ve closed the door in any way,” she said.