Back in February I interviewed Kim Williams Clark about her heroic efforts to create an inclusive education for her son Wesley, a lively, loving, and artistic nine-year-old with Down Syndrome. When the family lived in Montclair, New Jersey, Wesley was fully included with his typical peers. The family’s move to Brooklyn Heights was based on the reputation of P.S. 8 as a school that embraces diversity, inclusion, and learning differences.
The first interview covers Wesley’s negative experiences there and the school administration’s efforts to push him out into a segregated setting, despite federal law that requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “Least Restrictive Environment.”
This second interview picks up where the last one left off: Wesley’s dad, Lee Wesley Clark, Esq., and his mom Kim (also a lawyer) are fighting for Wesley’s right to attend his neighborhood school with appropriate support services.
What is the current status of Wesley’s case?
I found out that in February, after the publicity, that P.S. 8 conducted a behavioral assessment without parental consent. This is against the law: parents have to consent to these observations and they’re supposed to be used to provide additional support for children. Instead, PS 8 and members of the District used the assessment as a retaliatory tool to push Wesley out of PS 8 and inclusion.
How did you find out that the behavioral assessment was actually underway?
One day when we brought Wesley to school, I observed staff members standing around his classroom and I emailed the district Director of Special Services, Mark Otto. I also called the school office to inquire what they were doing and whether, in fact, they were conducting a behavior assessment. Previously I was permitted to observe all assessments and provided email notice of the date, time, and location of every evaluation. In this case, no consent was provided and I wasn’t invited to any of the observations.
During this period I met with Mr. Otto and asked, once again, for compensation for the one year of academic services Wesley was entitled to in reading, writing, and math that P.S. 8 had failed to provide. I also discussed the physical assault. At no time did Mr. Otto mention that further assessments were needed. Instead, he said that “all assessments were completed” and that additional time was needed simply to transfer the information from the individual assessments to one comprehensive IEP document. He asked me for two weeks before the IEP meeting to gather the information and create a draft IEP — remember, we’ve been waiting over a year for an IEP — and I gave him the two weeks. He then requested another two weeks. I gave him another two weeks.
A meeting was scheduled for March 9th. The team sent us an IEP invitation letter but left out procedural safeguards and copies of the documents to be reviewed at the meeting. Our educational advocate Sara Jo Soldovieri, an Inclusive Education Fellow at the National Down Syndrome Society, then formally requested the procedural safeguards and documents. The district delayed this process and advised that it was in the mail. When the mail didn’t arrive, I waited at the school for nearly four hours and every excuse was created to dissuade me from obtaining the records. Finally, I received the documents that were never sent to us with dates of parent receipt and a nearly sixty-page behavioral assessment that recommended that Wesley be “removed from inclusion” and placed in the most restrictive environment! We were devastated and made a tearful plea for inclusion.
What happened next?
I requested an adjournment of the meeting so that we could have independent evaluations to contest the illegal behavior assessment. On March 6th we were advised that all requests were denied by Mr. Otto. My advocate told him that we were legally permitted up to three adjournments and, anyway, Wesley had a therapy appointment that day. We received this: “The meeting will go forward whether the parents are present or not and a decision will be rendered in their absence.”
And so you had to attend the IEP meeting. Who was there with you, Lee, and Wesley?
There were fourteen Department of Education staff members there! But all the folks who created the behavioral plan — the school psychologist, the school principal, the supervisor, and Mr. Otto – refused to attend the meeting. Our local City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo also called in after learning of the injustices we had experienced at the hands of the district.
Why do you think the district and school officials refused to come?
Because they are aware that this plan that they created for my son is illegal. Instead they sent a P. S. 8 staff member, John Conforti, who was falsely presented as a “neutral” district representative.
What happened at the IEP meeting?
A DOE representative recommended that Wesley be removed from inclusion because it was “overwhelming” for him. They never mentioned any legal reasons for his removal, just that he’s not at the level of the other children and that he would be better served with “children like him.” My advocate Sara Jo said, “you are supposed to start by talking about the Least Restrictive Environment.” They said, “we have to talk about the most restrictive.” She said, “you don’t get to go to the next restrictive one because you have no basis to move him.” They said, “he’s regressed.” We said, “give him his service entitlements and then make an assessment.” Mr. Conforti said,“Wesley requires too many supports to be included.” I said to him, “you’re telling me that a child in a wheelchair would be denied a ramp and adaptations because he requires too many supports?” There was no response. I said, “Wesley did not choose this disability. This disability chose him.” The leader just looked away. No one denied that he hadn’t received his services for one year. No one denied that the school received funding to support Wesley. No one denied that, as I told you last time, he was assaulted at P.S. 8.
What else did you say?
I reminded the team that last June 2017 P.S. 8 and the district wrote a comparable service plan [a pre-IEP] that recommended Wesley be in an inclusive setting. The plan also said that his services are vital and without them he would regress. But the school refused to provide the supports and he regressed in the above areas, as they themselves predicted.
Where does Wesley spend his days now?
We are homeschooling him in order to keep the school from changing his status from inclusive setting to restrictive setting. A retired district official advised me that this may be an effective strategy to support his needs effectively until an inclusive placement is solidified. But the other big issue is that Wesley was so sad. I brought him home from school and he showed me that someone was hitting him on his thigh. I sent emails and journal entries. No one responded. I also learned that he was being left alone in the cafeteria during the gap between when he was dropped off at school at 7:40 and when his aide arrived at 8:30. The other kids left to go to class at 8:10 but he would just stay there alone in the basement cafeteria with whoever was there, a volunteer parent, a custodian, whatever. This wasn’t a good arrangement. I needed to know that his designated person was with him during those twenty minutes. Especially since his peers reported that he was assaulted previously.
Wesley wants to be in school. He’s asked to be in school. He misses his school friends and parents tell me that the students miss him dearly. But he no longer wants to be at P.S. 8 and his dad and I concur.
What is your vision for the next part of Wesley’s education?
Ideally I want Wesley to return to school, but not this year — it’s too late and he’s affected by these disheartening events. We want him back in school in September. Meanwhile, we are sending him to a tutor and to the therapies he needs. Maybe NYC’s new Chancellor Richard Carranza will make some progress in ensuring that public schools like PS 8 aren’t allowed to cherry-pick disabilities for their “inclusive” classrooms.
It’s been nearly thirty days since the IEP meeting. We still haven’t received the meeting documentation despite repeated email requests. The district says they mailed it and I signed for we haven’t even seen it! In the meantime, we are receiving limited compensatory services but no reading, writing, and math academic services. We are paying hundreds of dollars weekly out-of-pocket to support Wesley’s needs.
We’re so disappointed in the system that we want to create our own school. I’m at the the very beginning stages of accepting donations for the development of the “Clark School for Inclusion, Diversity, and Social Justice,” a private school under the auspices of our 501(c)(3) non profit organization, the Inclusion Works Foundation.
It’s so unfortunate that parents of children with disabilities have to make these sorts of choices for their children. Parents should be able to choose. Educators shouldn’t allowed to accept funding to support our children in school, refuse to provide the services and push our students out while our funding remains in the budget. Public schools shouldn’t force children into more restrictive environments and isolate them from their peers.
We’re hoping that justice will prevail! We hope that you will join us as we continue to fight for Wesley and all of children similarly situated nationally.