Tuesday December 4, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI Story Body:

DAWSON RASPUZZI Story Body:

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Parents made passionate pleas at a school board meeting last week for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union to overhaul its autism programs.

"We need to make a major change for our students with autism," said David Crossman, who was one of seven parents with an autistic child who attended Thursday’s meeting hoping to influence a change. "The current program, plain and simple, needs to be ripped down, restructured, and it needs to come from the top."

Parents noted that paraeducators do not receive enough specific training to handle children with autism, so when incidents arise they put themselves and the children in danger.

"One of the things that can be done right away ... the aides that are working with these kids, we need to get them trained to work with these kids. They’re not trained," Crossman said.

Other parents echoed that sentiment.

"My hats are off to the staff at Ben El. They have done tremendous things and just the patience they have shown ... but they’re being asked to do things they’re not trained to do," said David Baker, who has a daughter with Asperger syndrome in second grade.

Another parent, Joan Riley, said she has one child in a residential placement at New England Center for Children (NECC), a nonprofit autism research and education center in Southborough, Mass., and another with less severe symptoms at Bennington Elementary where the staff struggles with him.

"He’s eight years old, he’s going to school, and he’s not getting an education," Riley said. "I’m struggling with it, too. We need to help the staff get the training that they need and get the supports that they need, and we need it now."

Crossman said he and his family have been put through "three years of misery" due to the ineffectiveness of the local autism program. Crossman told the board when his son began in the early elementary autism program he was successful, but three years ago there was a change in the instructor and things have progressively worsened.

"It’s completely different and the program went downhill," Crossman said.

Crossman said he had placed his son in a residential program at NECC the past two months. In that time there has been significant improvement. "He’s a completely different kid," Crossman said.

Other parents who have experience with NECC joined Crossman in pleading for the SVSU to form a partner program that would allow NECC staff to operate an autism program in the SVSU. A similar model program headed by the Brattleboro-based Austine School for the Deaf used to be in place for deaf students until SVSU brought the services in-house a couple years ago through a successful transition.

Superintendent Catherine McClure acknowledged the need for improvement in SVSU autism programs. The programs have been short staffed because the SVSU has been unable to fill positions, she said. And McClure cited a national rise in the number of children on the autism spectrum that is reflected locally. Making it even more difficult is that needs vary greatly from child to child.

"The increase in number of students and variety of scope has caused stress on our delivery program," McClure said.

Since 2008 the number of children on the spectrum has climbed from 30 to 51. Seven additional children with autism are expected to enter the school system by the end of the school year.

Meanwhile, two staff positions remain unfilled: occupational therapist and behavioral specialist.

A part-time occupational therapist was hired at Mount Anthony Union Middle School to start this week and occupational therapy services have been arranged with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center if needed.

The supervisory union has been aware of the difficulties within the autism programs prior to parents coming to the meeting and in the past few months McClure said work has been done to improve the situation. 

SVSU recently began contracting with NECC for limited consulting services that will bring a consultant to the schools once every other week to work with students and educators.

McClure said there are other professional development opportunities being made available to staff to improve the short-term situation.

Among a host of ideas for the long term is a closer partnership with NECC, or another organization. In a preliminary draft budget for next school year the supervisory union has designated additional monies for whatever improvements the supervisory union decides to make.

Parents on Thursday pointed out that if things do not improve quickly, more children will likely be placed outside of the supervisory union, which will cost significantly more than bringing services to the schools. A residential placement at NECC costs SVSU more than $300,000 McClure said.

"For the money we’re spending for my son to go there, and somebody else to go there, why don’t we take that money to ask (NECC) to come and help us before (other children) have to go there," Crossman said.

Barker, who described his young daughter as charming but said at times she can lose control and cause physical harm to others, said he fears his daughter may be on a path to a residential placement if things are not changed.

"What I’m afraid of is in a mere two years you’re going to be paying for her to go to the New England Center if we don’t start something now," he told the board.

Riley advocated for the NECC program as well.

"I don’t see why we cannot get this program now. We need it now. What am I supposed to do with my son in the meantime? The staff is saying, ‘We don’t know what to do.’" Riley said. "The staff is struggling here. It’s not fair to staff and it’s not fair to my son."

In addition to improving services, parents also voiced complaints about communication and problems with children’s individualized education plans being incomplete or not being followed.

The SVSU board scheduled a follow-up meeting to address the topic for Dec. 10.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi