BENNINGTON -- School officials were updated on the progression of education bills in the legislature during a Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union legislative breakfast Monday.
In addition to the usual updates from legislators, questions were also asked of school administrators in light of recent allegations of mistreatment of an autistic child by paraprofessionals at Bennington Elementary that were captured by a secret audio recording.
Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said media reports of the incident triggered lawmakers across the state to begin questioning hiring practices, responsibilities of paraprofessionals, and delivery of special education in Vermont. Campion said the House Education Committee, of which he is a member, is gathering information to learn why Vermont has one of the highest ratios of paraprofessionals in the country.
"One of the things we are going to be looking at, not because of things down here necessarily, just because we realize it is such a big issue, (is) paraeducating," Campion said. "The committee is interested in learning more about paraeducating, we’re interested in delving into this."
Campion asked local school officials to give consideration to those thoughts on Wednesday.
"Just be thinking about what’s going well, what might not be going well, is there is a need for reform, are there ideas that pop to mind, or is the current system working?" Campion said.
Sean-Marie Oller, SVSU chairwoman, said there are about 150 paraprofessionals in the supervisory union, including about 20 who focus on children with intensive needs.
Superintendent Catherine McClure said SVSU’s requirements for hiring paraprofessionals follows federal regulations for "highly qualified" staff. The supervisory union requires paraprofessionals to have a minimum of an associate’s or equivalent degree. Once hired, paraprofessionals in SVSU must complete an online training program and 12 hours of crisis prevention intervention training that focuses on de-escalating situations when students begin to be disruptive.
"There are, however, times when we find that we could give a lot more training, and I think that’s been a topic of conversation with the parents, particularly with the ASD (autism spectrum disorders) students, and that’s certainly an area that we’re looking at now to have more training in that area for not only for the paraeducators but also for teachers," McClure said. "It is an area of great need because we’re seeing an increasing population on the spectrum of autism and these students have unique profiles, complex special needs, and those profiles change."
Reporting on the Legislative Session, Campion and other legislators updated those in attendance on some of the significant bills related to education.
* S.4, drafted by Sen. Dick Sears, passed in the Senate and would require schools to provide medical professionals trained in concussion detection and treatment at contact sports. The House Education Committee expects to take testimony on the bill this week.
* H.521, the "miscellaneous education" bill includes numerous law changes on an array of topics, including language that would not allow public schools to close in order for independent schools to open in their place, as North Bennington is in the process of doing. The bill is expected to be taken up by the House Education Committee this week. "I think it’s likely that it would leave the House. Where it goes from there, I’m not sure," Campion said. "I think a lot of people are interested in hearing more testimony."
* H.242, the "Vermont Strong Scholars Program" would pay a year’s worth of tuition to a Vermont student who graduated with a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field and then stayed in Vermont and became employed in that field for at least five years. The bill has been brought up in many committees including education, commerce, and appropriations. The Appropriations Committee is looking to add some firm numbers or caps included in the bill regarding how many students could take advantage of the change so a cost can be associated with it. "It needs a little more work and we’ll see what happens. The concept is terrific," said Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.
* S.14, the "fair share" bill requires payment of agency fees by teachers, administrators and municipal employees who opt not to be members of their respective unions. The bill passed the Senate and Campion expects it will pass the House as well. "I don’t foresee any problems, any difficulties, with that passing the House."
* S.130, the "flexible pathways" bill increases the number of college courses high school students may take before graduating from one to two, and establishes a way for students to complete their senior year of high school and their first year of college at the same time. The bill passed the Senate in March and will be heading to the House Education Committee in the future, Campion said. "I continue to try to find research somewhere that says this is a bad idea at some level, but it looks like it’s a terrific idea and I believe our committee is going to support it, and I believe appropriations has already put it in the budget."
The next education legislative breakfast in Bennington has tentatively been scheduled for May 6, depending on how the legislative session is wrapping up.
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