PARENTS SEEK HELP FOR DISABLED STUDENTS

January 26, 2001 11:00 pm

A group of Brookings-Harbor parents with concerns for their disabled childrens safety and education have asked the Brookings-Harbor School Board for help.

We are asking you, our elected school officials, to become involved, parent Darla Moore told school board members this week. The system is broke. Were here because were frustrated and we need your help.

District officials immediately vowed to check into the parents complaints. Parents claim that deficiencies in services and safety hazards are being ignored or overlooked by the South Coast Educational District, which provides special education programs to school districts from Reedsport to Brookings.

South Coast ESD officials said this week they have been and will be checking into the complaints.

Ive seen the list of (parents) concerns; some we can fix right away, others we will look into, and some are out of our hands, said Kitt Rainey, assistant superintendent for the ESD.

The Brookings-Harbor School District 17-C contracts with the South Coast ESD to provide services, teachers and instructional aides for many of the districts 238 special needs students.

The South Coast ESD is one of 17 such districts in the state. Each one is funded by state and local dollars.

Director Bill Saunders oversees the South Coast ESD programs for disabled students at Brookings-Harbor School District and the Gold Beach school district. Saunders is an employee of the ESD, but the Brookings-Harbor School District pays approximately $27,000 to supplement his salary and benefits.

Saunders said Friday that he is as frustrated as the parents.

The ESDs current system of sharing me with Gold Beach, Brookings-Harbor and the ESD is not working, he said.

And the growing number of special education students at Brookings-Harbor has made it harder to keep the system going, he said.

It makes it look like Im not doing my job, but we really need two full-time people doing this job.

Parents such as Moore and BJ Farris were so frustrated they submitted a letter to the school board this week with a list of their concerns. The letter was signed by 24 parents of mentally and physically disabled children.

Moore said parents have tried to remedy the problems in the last few month by talking with Saunders and South Coast ESD officials, but to no avail. They recently sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Education asking for help.

The parents claim the childrens individualize educational programs are not being followed something, if corrected, would likely resolve other issues.

Parents were also worried about the childrens safety, saying the ESD is not hiring enough teachers and instructional aides for the number of students in the classrooms.

They cited a case in which a sixth grade severely disabled student walked from one school to another while an instructional aide was busy handling an emergency situation with another student.

The parent was not told of the event until two weeks later, Moore said.

Parents also claimed the instructional aides and substitute aides are not receiving proper training or supervision, resulting in other additional safety concerns.

How long do our kids have to suffer until these people (ESD) get their act together? said parent Pat OHara. His disabled daughter attends Brookings-Harbor High School.

Weve tried to do this the proper way, through the right channels, but we only get lip-service, OHara said. Were trying to get the school board involved because weve exhausted our efforts with ESD.

On Thursday, Brookings-Harbor School Superintendent Paul Prevenas said he has sent a strong letter to Rick Howell, superintendent of South Coast ESD.

I told Rick we are very concerned about this and it should be treated as a top priority, Prevenas said. They need an action plan that identifies areas of concerns and ways to address them.

However, Prevenas said he didnt believe the problems especially about student safety were as bad as some parents are making them out to be.

Yes, there are some problems with the service, and it can be improved, but its not so bad that students are at risk, he said.

OHara wondered why it took Prevenas so long to act on the parents concerns.

Why didnt he write this letter (to Howell) a long time ago? OHara said.

Prevenas responded, My letter is not the first time Ive talked to Rick Howell about this.

In fact, Prevenas said, he has contacted Howell, Rainey and Saunders several times since November in response to OHaras complaints.

He admitted, however, that it wasnt until Mondays board meeting that he realized OHaras concerns were shared by so many parents.

Of course with a large group of parents Im going to take more notice, he said. Im going to do more than I have in the past.

Prevenas said he has been a long-time outspoken critic of how South Coast ESD delivers its serviced.

Like the parents, he doesnt see how it makes sense to administer a program in Brookings from as far away as Coos Bay, where South Coast ESD is headquartered.

Its a very inefficient system and they need to restructure their delivery system, Prevenas said.

He will suggest such a restructuring when he and other school officials meet with South Coast ESD officials in February.

Meanwhile, Prevenas said, The immediate concern is getting the parents concerns taken care of.

In response to the parents letter of concerns, Howell said, Were aware that some things need to be changed.

Weve addressed some already, and some we will address, he said. Some people want things to happen now, but thats not always possible.

Howell pointed out that Rainey met with OHara and other parents on Jan. 12. Another meeting with parents was scheduled at that time for Jan. 30.

Rainey and several ESD officials were in Brookings Thursday to talk with teachers and conduct previously scheduled safety checks of special needs classrooms.

Dan Warrick, coordinator of Support Services for South Coast ESD, was checking out padded bars recently placed across a window at a Kalmiopsis classroom for severely disabled students. The bars were installed after a student there injured herself by banging her head against a window.

Warrick said he was there Thursday to determine if the bars would prevent that from happening again, and what else could be done.

He also conducted a safety check of the modular classroom for disabled students at Brookings-Harbor High School. Several instructional aides were recently injured there while taking care of disabled students.

Warrick said one aide had her fingers smashed in a bathroom door when a student tried to close it. Another teacher injured her ankle on some stairs outside the classroom.

As for other problems in special needs classrooms, Rainey said some are linked to the lack of qualified special needs teachers and instructional aides throughout the state. The ones they do find are not interested in working in rural areas, he said.

Rainey blamed some of the parents frustration on a communication breakdown. He looked forward to the Jan. 30 meeting.

This meeting will help us report back to them, and hear new things that we can work on, he said.

Meanwhile, OHara said he and other parents have faxed a letter to Oregon Department of Education, asking them to investigate the South Coast ESD.

Saunders said he was contacted by an investigator with the Oregon Department of Education on Thursday.

He asked me to try and handle the parents complaints at the local level first before they come down, he said.

Saunders said he was able to tell the investigator that he planned to review each disabled students individualized educational programs to make sure the students needs were being met.

Some parents, however, are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Its just more of the same stuff, said parent BJ Farris. They just think were going to get tired eventually and go away.

OHara also doubted that South Coast ESD will do what it promises. We cant afford to wait any longer. I have the safety of my daughter to worry about, he said.

The parents have also faxed information and list of their concerns to other school districts in ESDs jurisdiction.

We want to find out what their situation is and what kind of problem theyve been having with ESD, OHara said.

He is also trying to form a PTA-like group for parents of special needs children.

Parents interested in joining such a group can reach OHara at (541) 469-7830.