BENNINGTON -- A week after school officials began investigating the potential mistreatment of a third-grader with autism, other parents of autistic children in Bennington School District raised their own concerns Wednesday.
"What is really apparent here is that we have a catastrophic failure of our special needs program. I feel that we need strong leadership here. I feel that we need policies put in place, procedures, processes, training, and above all, the safety and well-being of these children must be at the forefront in addition to them receiving an education," Laurie Mulhern told the school board.
Audio secretly recorded from a device hidden by family on an 8-year-old's backpack was given to the Banner and school officials last week. In the recording, staff at Bennington Elementary can be heard referring to the boy as a "dumbass kid with autism," saying he can go 10 days without eating and three without drinking, and telling the boy to clean his urine off the floor, among other questionable interactions.
"I can't tell you how many emotions came through my family when we were made aware of this situation. We have felt frustration, even the word distrust has come up, anger somewhat, but most importantly it's huge concerns regarding the safety of our most vulnerable student population," Mulhern said.
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine McClure said the safety of children is the school's top concern as well and the matter remains under investigation. "There are people on administrative leave while the investigation is happening and it's important for confidentiality that I do that in order that it can be a fair investigation but also a thorough investigation. Those investigations are happening as we speak," McClure said.
Because it is a confidential matter, McClure said she cannot validate any of the content from the recording that has been reported, however she said "all the aspects of the tape," including whether protocols were followed, are being reviewed.
If the investigation determines there was any neglect or misconduct by staff there will be disciplinary action. McClure said the results of the investigation will be reported as is allowed by law and the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
McClure could not say how long the investigation will take but said one factor causing delays is that everyone involved must listen to the audio in its entirety, and the recording is nine and a half hours long. More than seven hours of the recording takes place at school.
At least one individual, paraprofessional Laurie Connell, whose voice was identified by the mother of the boy involved in the recording, has been placed on administrative leave. A substitute paraprofessional, Clayton Buck, is also part of the investigation and will not be working while the investigation is ongoing. Others may also be on administrative leave, however, McClure declined to say who or how many others are a part of the investigation.
Tara Skye, who has a child with special needs at Bennington Elementary, said she realizes the events caught on audio may have been an isolated incident, but she too is experiencing the same difficulties trying to ensure her child is receiving an appropriate education as those expressed by the family who made the recording.
"I call Central Office, I don't get return calls. I'm finding it hard to make sure I'm doing my job as a parent of a special needs child when I'm up against so much resistance from the school, right on through staffing issues that are affecting my child," she said.
Concerns about autism education in Bennington and through the supervisory union have been aired at public meetings for months and administration has expressed a commitment to address the shortfalls. However, several parents continue to express their displeasure with the limited results they see as staff, they believe, remains undertrained.
Mulhern, a member of the Bennington Special Education Parent Advisory Council -- a parent group that allows for the sharing of information and support -- pleaded for school officials to reach out to SEPAC to get their input on special needs programs, policies and procedures.
"I urge each and every one of you to please seriously look at what's happening and do something about it. We have come as far as we can come as parents. We have raised them the best we can, we have sought resources outside of the educational facilities. We have talked to state representatives, support groups. We have felt like we have done everything we can. We can't change this alone, we need each and every one of you to reach out to these children," Mulhern said. "They were born this way. They don't deserve to be treated with any kind of disrespect."
At a special SVSU meeting called in December in response to complaints about the autism programs the SVSU board formed a committee of parents and staff to work together to improve the programming. That group has yet to meet, however, which McClure said is due largely to other personnel issues that have taken the time of administration. By the end of this week, McClure told the board, a date is expected to be set to hold a meeting of that group.
In response to board member George Sleeman asking why things are not being done quicker, McClure said progress is being made even though it may not appear that way. Among efforts that have been made include program evaluations, which led to the SVSU board adding money to the budget for improvements.
"We have been working. We haven't been ignoring this," McClure said.
Mulhern also brought up a concern that the hiring of Buck as a substitute paraprofessional was in violation of SVSU's "conflict of interest in hiring" policy because his mother, Kathy Buck, is the SVSU special education director. The policy states a conflict of interest exists "when a family member, indirectly or directly, is in a position to supervise, evaluate or hire another family member."
McClure told the board the policy would be reviewed. On Thursday she said that as a substitute paraprofessional, Clayton Buck's immediate supervisor would be the special education teacher he was working under and the next supervisor would be the school principal.
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