Accountability · Blog

Wesley’s Story, Part 3: “This Is A Bigger Issue Than Wesley,” or How the NYC DOE is Failing Students with Disabilities

Data for [School Year] 2016 –17 contained in this report shows promising movement toward ensuring that students are educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate for their individual needs.

This is a statement from the New York City Department of Education’s  most recent Annual Report on Special Education, which boasts of the “substantial improvement” and “important actions to address core challenges” within its troubled offices that oversee programming for children with special needs. The parents of Wesley Clark, Kim Williams Clark and Lee Clark, would beg to differ. In fact, 50,000 NYC students were denied special education services to which they were legally entitled in the 2016–17 school year,” or one-quarter of all special education students.

New York School Talk has been following Wesley, an artistic and animated nine-year-old with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, and his parents’ struggles to hold the New York City Department of Education, particularly District 13 in Brooklyn Heights, accountable for providing him with his federally-protected right to an education in the least restrictive environment. Wesley has thrived in inclusive settings since birth but has been pushed out of NYC’s  inclusive classrooms. The reality for many NYC students with disabilities is that  promise of an inclusive education is rhetoric. 

In Part 1 Kim described Wesley’s negative experiences at PS 8, part of District 13, and the school’s effort to force him out into a segregated setting. In Part 2 we spoke about the school and district’s efforts to isolate Wesley from his typical peers and her conclusion that he was unwelcome at PS 8.

This month I spoke again to Kim, who is currently homeschooling Wesley because of the NYC DOE’s determination to push Wesley out and recommend him for one of the most restrictive environments, as well as its failure for more than a year to provide Wesley with the academic services he is entitled to..  If Wesley’s parents — both lawyers, his mom the founder of an organization called InclusionWorks that advocates for “equity and justice” for children with disabilities — can’t get the DOE to comply with federal law, how many other parents just give up?

Here is Part 3 of Wesley’s story.

Where is Wesley right now?

He’s been home ever since that March IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meeting and we’ve been homeschooling him. He’s still not receiving the services he’s entitled to: speech therapy, physical therapy, reading, writing, and math tutoring.

Homeschooled children with disabilities have a basic entitlement to these services. Why isn’t Wesley getting them?

In order for Wesley to get these services paid for by the DOE, District 13 has to give us an “RSA,” which is a voucher for services from specific providers. We’ve been requesting the RSA since February 26th and the DOE hasn’t sent it and so we’ve been paying out-of-pocket. Meanwhile, they’ve given us no reason for the denial of the voucher. The Non-Public School team states that the public school is responsible and the public school says that the Non-Public School team is responsible.

I’ve sent over ten emails to the Director of Non-Public Schools, Cherry Kang, and she doesn’t respond. I’ve contacted District 13’s Director of Special Services, Mark Otto, and his team told us they have no involvement with Wesley’s case. We finally got an RSA for partial services starting in May but they won’t reimburse us for March-May. They won’t even give us the list of providers! The DOE flat out refuses to provide RSA’s for his enhanced service mandate for tutoring in math, reading and writing from February to date.

Anyway, it’s the end of June already and most providers are already committed.

Can’t you get his services for the summer? As a student with multiple disabilities, Wesley is entitled to summer programming, right?

They cancelled his summer services! Wesley has had a 12-month service program his entire life; in fact, he had summer services at PS 8 last summer. But without our knowledge or consent, the DOE changed his IESP (IEP for non-public students) to a 10-month service program. Of course we never signed it. There’s no justification for cutting his entitlements. But it’s being implemented anyway. Without year-round supports Wesley may regress.

This is a nightmare.

Didn’t the reduction in services get discussed at the IEP meeting you had in March?

No one mentioned it. No one told us they were reducing him to 10 months. When parents/guardians attend an IEP meeting they are supposed to receive a draft copy of the IEP… When we arrived, they told us there were “computer difficulties” and that the venue didn’t have internet. Then they said, pursuant to the law, that we had 10 days to sign the IESP, which we hadn’t seen. So we had them create a draft document that just listed his services and we signed that. After the nearly five-hour meeting they were supposed to send us an official IESP and the RSA’s so we could arrange for Wesley to have his therapy and tutoring sessions.

Thirty days later we had received nothing. I contacted them and they said it was “in the mail.” I asked them to just email it and when I received the email I saw that it was inconsistent with our agreement and that they had eliminated summer programming. The DOE didn’t attach our signed services page and now contends that we never agreed to services. The DOE has further failed to upload the document into the online system which documents the receipt of all student records.

Did you ever get your hard copy, like the law requires?

I finally got it last week but, oddly, the return address was PS 8 and they’re not supposed to have anything to do with Wesley! And then that same week, a woman named Elba Haggerty from the Attendance Office of the DOE, appeared at our house to report that PS 8 was listing Wesley as a current student who had been absent for months.

I was shocked. I told her he was a homeschooled student and didn’t understand why she was there. She admitted that she talked with the administration of PS 8 minutes before arriving at our home.  After she left, I called PS 8 and requested Wesley’s attendance roster. Both the parent coordinator and the clerical staff were non-responsive. I also emailed Ms. Haggerty, to no avail.

Do you have any idea why PS 8 is still involved? Wesley isn’t their student.

There are clues. I was contacted by a Mrs. Wang from the DOE and I asked her if she was from the public schools or the non-public schools. [As a homeschooled student, Wesley is non-public.] She advised me by email that in Wesley’s case there is a “team agreement” for PS 8 to provide him with social work, psychological services, teaching and clerical support. But Wesley’s not at PS 8! He’s never received services there from a PS 8 social worker or psychologist!  PS 8 is not teaching Wesley – so why are they listing him as an active student per this agreement.

Are you saying that PS 8 is billing the city for services that Wesley isn’t receiving?

Yes. I believe that a child should have access to the services they are entitled to before anyone gets paid. All the DOE has to do is put an envelope in the mail and Wesley could have that access.

Here’s another thing: on the emails I have received, Mark Otto has been actively listed as a member of this “team agreement.” But when I speak to District 13’s Special Services Department, they say they don’t know anything about Wesley. For example, one of the staff members in Otto’s office, Robert Kopiec, has emailed me at least four times and said he had no information on Wesley and purports to know nothing about a “team agreement.” This is false!

What’s next in your fight for Wesley?

Well, I thought we had a plan. We asked for an impartial hearing to obtain the services he is entitled to per his IESP, like therapeutic services, tutoring and 12 month supports. The DOE filed a response based upon DOE misrepresentations and sought to dismiss our claim “with prejudice.” In other words, they want to bar Wesley from his service entitlements.  Then, we filed a new claim and asked for a mediation to more quickly facilitate Wesley’s therapy and tutoring services. But this past weekend, the mediation team at the New York Peace Institute (a neutral party) advised us that the DOE “denied” the request.

Here’s the email I received:

From: Carol Lieb Himes <[email protected]>

Sent: June 9, 2018 4:20:02 PM EDT

Subject: Request for mediation in lieu of resolution session, LWC

Dear Donnell,

The NYC Department of Education has informed me that it is declining the request for mediation in lieu of the resolution session in connection with the Impartial Hearing for this student.  Because mediaiton [sic] is voluntary,we will not be providing mediation services.

Sincerely, Carol

Unbelievable, right?

How is Wesley doing amidst all these struggles?

Wesley is doing okay. He misses his friends. He needs to be around other children to progress socially, but he’s being denied that opportunity. But everyone in the neighborhood has been so supportive. I’ve had parents approach me and introduce themselves, telling me how much their child misses Wesley at school.

And, while Wesley often asks to go to school, his communication has improved since he’s been home and I’ve been taking him to speech therapy, specifically PROMPT therapy, at NYC Speech Center in Eastchester, New York. They are phenomenal.

But Wesley needs to be in school and I had hoped that he would go to a school — any school — that provides an inclusive classroom. I contacted the Non-Public Schools office to try to get him placed but they emailed me to advise that PS 8 would do the IEP and, as I’ve told you before, they are determined to put him in the most restrictive environment.

Do you take this personally?

I believe that this must be a bigger issue than Wesley. I don’t believe that the district would go through so much effort to punish one child. My persistence is unveiling their practices against children with disabilities and their efforts to postpone related services and utilize funds for whatever purpose they want while leaving the child to suffer.

The other part of this is that it is a conscious and strategic effort to further disable children with special needs by not providing services and causing children to regress and be placed in District 75 schools [that serve children with disabilities in the most restrictive environment].

Furthermore, students at PS 8 reported observing Wesley being assaulted by his paraprofessional. This has been totally ignored by the district and they have accepted no responsibility for the impact of their egregious actions on the future development of our child. According to my advocate Sara Jo Soldovieri, the manager of Inclusive Education Programming at National Down Syndrome Society, there are incentives for schools to place children in District 75.  District 13, which includes PS 8, purports to be an inclusive school district but they have a history of cherry-picking which children with disabilities will be able to stay in their schools. Because District 13 has such high performance standards, maybe they believe an influx of children who are lower-performing will impact their ratings.

PS 8 kicked Wesley out, despite our pleas. Now we’re supposed to work with them. Not only did they create a teamwork agreement that denies our son services, but they’re billing the DOE and the non-public schools are not responding to our requests for services.

It’s sad that Wesley is in the middle. But I suspect that there are many other Wesleys in District 13, which has a track record of success with  some of the highest-rates of kids who enter specialized high schools. If children with high-level disabilities are enrolled this may threaten their reputation as a feeder to specialized schools and high schools like, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.

As I understand it, the principal of PS 8 is currently in discussions about whether to separate itself from its more urbanized and diverse middle school partner, likely, to further control its population and track record.

It’s simple:  They don’t give services, the child regresses, and they go to District 75.  The justification they gave for throwing Wesley out was that he “needed too many supports.”  According to federal and state law, that’s illegal. But at least it’s honest.

 

Addendum from Kim:

What’s happened to Wesley isn’t an isolated incident. I’m certain that parents in New York and nationally are facing similar challenges in inclusive education. We hope to one day open an inclusion school. Today, we join forces with other parents, providers and “inclusion friendly” educators in an effort to eradicate this trend. A great resource for parents will be the, “Back-to-School – Parents Roundtable” which will be held on August 28, 2018 at 6:30 – 8:30pm at the St. Ann School and Holy Trinity, Community Room, 2nd Fl. (side entrance) at 157 Montague Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Topic: Inclusion, Diversity, Educational Activism (IDEA) & Bullying: Changing Educational Outcomes for Youth of All Abilities!

Invited guests include, Disability Rights Advocates of New York, Huntington Learning Center, National Educational Consultant Nykeisha Jenkins, Support by Design, NYC Speech and Language Pathologist, P.C., Gianna Locascio, PsyD of NYU School of Medicine Director of Pediatric Neuropsychology NYU Langone Hospital – Brooklyn, William Rappaport, M.D. Pediatrics, YMCA and Matthew Schinelli of NJAPE.org /Inclusive Movement Center, IDEAL School, NDSS and more.  School Backpacks will be distributed. The event is free and refreshments will be served. Please RSVP at: https://inclusionworks.us/contact-us, [email protected], 888-443.7716 ext. 1.

 

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