Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Special education PTA on holding NHCS accountable, increasing inclusion

NHC-SEPTA members Marla Andreoli-Weber and Tiffany Fulwood, along with President Denise Yannone, at the Rachel Freeman School of Engineering community fair. (Courtesy Denise Yannone)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools has work to do when it comes to improving inclusion of students of all abilities within its care; the New Hanover County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association was established to ensure that happens. 

Inspired by advocacy work done by a SEPTA in Long Island, New York, Denise Yannone brought the idea to found a similar group in New Hanover County when she moved south.

“I saw the difference that a group of fierce warriors … and community members [made], gathering together with one purpose, which was to advocate for the kids and bring them a better educational outcome and really acceptance and accessibility back in a time when IDEA was brand new,” she said. 

Yannone was referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, reauthorized by the federal government in 2004. The legislation ensures students with disabilities have access to a free public education tailored to their individual needs.

SEPTA has a two-pronged approach to upholding the tenets of the act. The first is working with parents and students on developing educational and behavioral plans and assuring the district is honoring the agreements. The second is collaborating directly with district staff advising and advocating for policy change. 

Since its inception, New Hanover County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association has grown to 81 members — parents, educators and allies dedicated to inclusion for differently abled students. The group is the only certified special education PTA in North Carolina, the standout in a lone district with a disproportionate use of suspension and seclusion. 

The district has struggled with curbing incidents of seclusion, when a student is placed in a room alone and told not to leave, and restraint, when an employee uses reasonable force, especially in incidents involving students of color. In March 2022, Port City Daily reported students of color were secluded and restrained four times more than white peers in 2021. 

In February a 6-year-old Black girl was handcuffed by law enforcement after 20 minutes of evading school staff, throwing school supplies and climbing on furniture at College Park Elementary. The student had an IEP, or behavioral intervention plan, and the incident ignited concerns over de-escalation methods used by NHCS.

Earlier this month, Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam said NHCS is the only district in the state under federal sanction for its suspension rates of Black students with disabilities. Those students are suspended four-and-a-half times more than their white peers; sanctions under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act kick in when a district exceeds three times more than another demographic. 

“I will say that given the data that is shown on Black children and disabled children, that is obviously a systemic issue that the school system is having,” Dorian Cromartie said on a call with SEPTA members and Port City Daily in April. “Obviously, with the policies they put forth, it shows that they don’t want to do anything concrete to stop the systemic issue.” 

Cromartie, who ran for a school position in November, is a charter member of SEPTA and vice president of Rachel Freeman School of Engineering PTA. He has been consistently vocal about ending seclusion at school board meetings. 

In November 2022, the school board voted to close its 25 seclusion rooms across the district and restrict its use to emergencies, such as obtaining a weapon, to prevent or break up a fight, self-defense, or as “reasonably needed” to ensure safety. 

Advocates for ending the practice, including members of SEPTA and another group Love Our Children, claim the policy change didn’t go far enough. After over two years of advocating for the elimination of the practice, they argue any room could be used for seclusion now and the policy should not allow for any use of seclusion. The district maintained during the fall meeting that separating a student from others may be necessary in extreme situations. 

SEPTA, through its regular board and committee meetings, drafts resolutions and position statements that they hope will guide decision makers. One of the most recent was on seclusion, which reads: 

“Every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of physical restraint and any behavior intervention must be consistent with every child’s basic human rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse. Physical restraint should never be used except in situations where a child’s behavior poses imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others. Immediately following the first use of physical restraint, the school team must develop a plan that appropriately meets the student’s needs, applies appropriate interventions, and thereby eliminates the further use of physical restraint.”

As a result of the federal sanction — which the district has been under for five years — 15% of funding the district receives for special education must be put toward addressing the inequitable suspension rate instead of exceptional children needs as a whole.  According to district spokesperson Josh Smith, the 15% of funds — $4.5 million over the last five years — goes toward programs and initiatives, such as “Social Emotional Learning (SEL), positive behavior supports, behavior interventions, and evidence-based strategies for classroom management.”

According to Yannone, there’s more to be done, and it starts with educating parents on their rights and options for making sure their children receive a safe and effective education. Examples could include how to advocate for their children in IEP meetings, what programs are available, and who they should communicate with to manage progress or problems. 

Monica Bohonicky, parent and SEPTA member, said she was met with a lot of “defiance” and “wrong information” when she embarked on her son’s IEP process.

“So I came to SEPTA begging for knowledge, and understanding and community and advocacy to teach me how to be the best parent I can be for my kids,” Bohonicky said. “And I have learned a lot and things are changing for my son, and he’s doing amazing and I finally have an amazing team surrounding him.”

SEPTA’s work also involves informing NHCS on parent concerns. A recent example was communication between the district and parents regarding bus transportation — being able to track the buses and anticipate arrival time. Yannone complimented NHCS Transportation Director Debbie Trafton for her support, stating administration made over 200 calls to special education families ensuring they were comfortable with their accommodations. 

SEPTA has also been supportive of Trafton’s program, Books from Your Bus, where bus drivers provide books to well-behaving students. Yannone said this helps promote a more comfortable environment for differently abled bus riders.

The group has pushed for better communication across the board for programs available to all students.  

“Whether it’s track or prom, dance or chorus, whatever it is, that everybody knows about it and then how to make these programs more accessible,” Yannone said. 

She added the individual advocacy helps SEPTA learn where the systemic disparities originate, in turn informing the group’s larger policy goals. 

Beyond issues the district faces with disproportionate use of seclusion and suspension, SEPTA  advocates, too, for further progress on NHCS’s compliance with one of IDEA’s key components. 

“One of the most important tenets is the least-restrictive environment, which means, per the law, our children must be placed with non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate,” Shawn Lamb, SEPTA’s academic inclusion liaison, said. “That sometimes simply doesn’t happen.”

NHCS utilizes special education classes, but some students who have disabilities may attend some or all of their classes with non-disabled students. However, a strategy for further inclusion could be co-teaching, where both a teacher for the non-disabled population and one for the special education students work in the same classroom. 

Another strategy could be resource rooms for students to calm down, access help, or just take a break from the regular school day.

SEPTA is also working to ensure the processes and programs are universal across the district, ensuring special education students can expect the same services regardless of switching schools or moving to the next grade level. NHCS offers specialized intensive services — academic, behavioral or social — just not at every school. 

“Increasing the least restrictive ratio, which is the number of [special education] students that are included in gen ed, to more than 80% — that’s what inclusion actually looks like,” Lamb said. “That’s on the New Hanover County Schools strategic plan; we were thrilled to get that on the strategic plan.” 

Lamb added a least-restrictive environment not only improves the educational experience for special education students, but the greater school community as a whole. She cited her son’s participation on the YMCA soccer team as an example. 

“He is not the best one on the field, sure, but he is involved in every game,” Lamb said. “Two weeks ago, he got his very first goal. You avoid the bullying because you grow up with these kids, they know you. That’s a sports example, but it is an example of where inclusion can really make the community better.” 
As the 2023-2024 school year comes to a close, SEPTA is continuing to build its ranks and advocate for changes next school year. Its goal is to get to 3,000 members, and is inviting anyone interested in becoming a member or seeking assistance to contact SEPTA.

[Ed. note: The piece has been updated to reflect the Books From Your Bus was devised by Debbie Trafton. PCD regrets the error.]


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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