BENNINGTON -- While the results of an investigation into misconduct at Bennington Elementary School remain unsettled along with next year’s Bennington School District budget, plans are still underway for improved programming in local schools to address a growing population with special needs, particularly autism.
The changes can’t come soon enough for some parents.
"More aggressive action needs to be taken," Laurie Mulhern said.
A member of the Bennington Special Education Parent Advisory Council, Mulhern has addressed recent supervisory union and school district board meetings to stress the bind in which the unresolved BSD budget puts staff, students, and parents as they plan for next year.
"We can’t even have talks about placements," Mulhern said by telephone earlier this week. And after little interaction between school officials and the advisory council since parents began petitioning for change last year, Mulhern repeatedly used the word "disappointed."
"It doesn’t strike me as improving," she said.
Meanwhile, an April review by the Vermont Agency of Education describes a half-dozen far-reaching deficiencies in the prior program of the BSD student whose alleged mistreatment by staff in February prompted the investigation.
Kelly Kennedy, a member of the BSD board and the parent council, said earlier this week that he was similarly frustrated with the lack of follow-through with the recently formed parent group. "Because with autism, when you lose a year, you pretty much lose that year."
But "I’m more concerned with the budget and the money for special education in that budget," Kennedy continued on March 7. Without the spending plan approved, shortcomings can’t be addressed.
In an interview Thursday, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine McClure identified a catalog of programs and changes in next year’s budgets to address special needs and the increasing number of students with autism spectrum disorder.
"We’re in an unusual position right now," McClure said, "in a period of listening and examination, self-examination. ... What I’ve appreciated with parents who’ve come forward to talk to us (is) they’ve pointed out areas that we know are areas of concern (such as) the need to ensure there’s collaboration among faculty and staff."
Acknowledging communication as another concern, McClure said officials were working to improve that piece and the issue was not pervasive across the supervisory union. And although there’s a sense of immediacy to improve those lines, McClure said the focus right now was on the BSD budget re-vote on May 21.
"What readers should understand is the staffing connected to the BSD budget at the supervisory level -- as well as BSD classroom teachers, art, music and physical education, librarians -- are in the budget."
The spending plans adopted by the supervisory union and proposed for the BSD largely continue current staffing levels. Reduction in Force notices from the two boards were approved last month as a last resort in case the BSD fails to have a budget in place July 1.
"We really need to support our students," McClure said, continuing to point out equalized per pupil spending in the BSD was lower than the statewide average, and slightly lower than the SVSU average, "so it’s certainly a budget that supports the commitment of the BSD board members to provide resources to support our students as well as being mindful of the difficult economic times."
Despite the below average spending, the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget would increase the local tax share 13.91 percent year-over-year because of increased spending and decreased state and federal funding.
Proposed special education changes
In the current school year, the supervisory union has separated high school students with severe emotional and behavioral needs from younger students in its PLUS program. Next fall, the plan is to similarly transition 7th and 8th graders to a program at the middle school.
In a presentation to SVSU board members last month, Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep said the change would allow students an easier transition to regular classrooms.
"The goal of all of these programs, all of these alternative programs, is to support the students, improve either their academic or behavioral needs, and have them transfer back to their home schools. That is the goal," McClure said at the supervisory union’s central offices Thursday. "We really want the success of all the students and we are committed to providing training for staff and evaluative services for students, so we can really tailor that individual support."
Currently posted for next year is an anticipated assistant superintendent of special education at the SVSU, a new position that will work in tandem with the director of special education. The administrator will communicate and support district-level decisions about Individualized Education Programs and also help with wider supervisory union program development.
In next year’s budgets for the supervisory union and BSD, McClure said a "diagnostic and evaluative center" would target students with a dramatic change in behavior as an early intervention and evaluation strategy, while additional funds are included for training and specialists for the ACORNS program, an alternative placement for elementary children on the most severe end of the autism spectrum.
The SVSU has previously contracted with the New England Center for Children, of Southborough, Mass., to offer local consulting services for students and educators.
Next year’s proposals allow for a team or two to case manage and consult teachers of autistic students in the mainstream. The professionals are planned to include a more specialized Behavioral Interventionist: a board-certified position focused on analysis and intervention of complex behaviors.
"The special education teacher on that team is one we hope would be one with ... significant experience working with autism spectrum disorder," McClure said. The superintendent said the student population with autism was expected to increase over the next two years, until 2015-2016, the year "we’re seeing the rise in the greatest anticipated number coming in."
The trend follows across the state and nation. "We have profiles of students on that entire spectrum. ... Some of the students on the spectrum are less intense and have less intense needs, so we literally have a wide spectrum of needs," McClure said.
"But each individual child on the spectrum has a different profile," she continued.
Echoing that statement was Jess Poirier, the founder of the Vermont Autism Network and a member of Vermont’s Autism Task Force.
The mother of an autistic child, Poirier said earlier this week cases like Nathan Reilly’s in Bennington prompted her to advocate for the licensing of paraprofessionals in Vermont schools.
In the April 18 letter from the Vermont Agency of Education documenting deficiencies in Reilly’s prior program, the list includes the absence of a certified special education teacher during most of the day, an inconsistent approach to instruction, a lack of sufficient mental health counseling, the absence of "consistent, concrete, positive behavioral supports" by trained individuals, and discrepancies between the behavioral assessment and behavior plan.
The letter also faults the supervisory union for a lack of qualitative data collection along with data unaligned with the recommendations of a district-sponsored consultant, multiple changes in staffing, and services "contraindicated for any student but in particular for a student with autism."
"Autistic kids specifically have very specific needs," Poirier said. With different perceptions and difficulty communicating, she said children with autism took longer to respond.
"If folks aren’t trained ... they don’t know how to deal with the child," she continued.
"(They say) the kid’s not behaving."
Speaking publicly about educational issues dealing with autism, the Berkshire resident near the Canadian border said she had heard stories from all over Vermont. "As a state we have to do better," she said. "Because these kids are going to be adults someday."
"If we don’t serve them now, what’s our community, our state, going to look like in 30 years?"
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