Parents demand action from Summit School District on special education
The house was packed. Public seating, normally ample, was entirely full. An overflow crowd formed out in the hallway. Many in attendance waved signs reading, “I SUPPORT A SEAC.”
Summit School District board members knew this wasn’t going to be a normal meeting when they walked into the room on Dec. 7
The crowd settled in behind two women who were there to make public comments to the board. They all had common purpose about an issue of critical importance to them and their children: special education.
One of the speakers at the table was Catherine Ashton-Hirst, a parent of two special needs children. She gave a prepared speech to the board, and the papers shook at times when her hands trembled. Her voice cracked through tears as she told of her family’s struggle to get help for their children.
Her daughter, now 5 and in kindergarten with severe autism, was diagnosed by Children’s Hospital in Denver as has having the language, communication and cognitive ability of a 3-year-old.
Yet, she said, the school report card issued a week prior to that diagnosis declared that her daughter was proficient in all but two areas. She found this discrepancy between the diagnosis and the report card to be an example of how the special education program in Summit was not adequately addressing her family’s needs, nor fully considering parental input into their child’s education. She punctuated several moments in her speech with a refrain: “We struggled to find the help and support we needed.”
Ashton-Hirst, an architect who lives in Breckenridge, recently graduated from a Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI) program sponsored by the Family & Intercultural Resource Center.
There, she said, she learned about the strategies and tools she needed to become an effective voice for change in her community. She is now using those skills to speak up about issues she feels need to be addressed in Summit.
While willing to take legal action, she said, she much preferred being able to work with the school district to bring about solutions. The primary reason she spoke at the December 7 meeting was to request that the school district establish a local Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC).
A SEAC is made up of individuals with disabilities, educators, parents, administrators, specialists, and other interested parties from the community who collaborate to help special needs students.
Federal and state law mandates state-level SEACs, and the Colorado SEAC has the stated mission to “actively represent children/youth with disabilities and impact decisions made on their behalf to enhance the quality of educational services.” Colorado also has 36 local SEACs in school districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). As of yet, Summit School District has not established its own SEAC.
At the moment, all students with special needs have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to address their specific concerns. The plans bring together parents, educators, and administrators to figure out best approaches to educating the individual students and addressing their individual concerns. SEACs bring in additional resources for the entire program, and seek to have collaboration among community members to address common concerns and goals. With advisers from state SEAC and other state agencies available to guide the process, parents and individuals with disabilities are able to have a wider support network than what would be available with just the IEP.
The idea of a Summit SEAC was proposed at a school district meeting two years earlier by Betty Sarber, who spoke alongside Ashton-Hirst and is a parent of a child with mental health concerns. “We proposed this idea of moving toward a SEAC,” she said, “because we felt like it would be a good opportunity to partner parents and the school, and external community members, to look at what we’re doing with special education in Summit.”
Sitting behind Ashton-Hirst and Sarber were many supporters from the Hispanic community, some of whom had special needs children of their own. Claudia Sigala, another FLTI student, helped bring the large group together to rally behind the speakers, as she was seeing members of the Hispanic population struggle with getting the help they needed for their own special needs children.
She said many of these parents struggle with the language barrier, and are often too scared to speak up or try to get help for their kids, especially if they are not documented. In some cases, the parents struggle to even get their children diagnosed with autism or other learning disabilities.
“I know someone whose child just sits alone and stares at the corner in school, or acts out, and they don’t get any help,” Sigala said. Sigala, Ashton-Hirst and Sarber are now allied in the cause to get help for special needs children, and their show of collective force was certainly noticed by the school district.
Mary Kay Doré, director of student services at Summit School District, said she understands that parents are an important part of special education, and that the district has offered several ways for parents to give input and be a part of that process.
“We know the important partnership we have are with parents,” Doré said. “We need the parents involved in their child’s education, otherwise we’re not nearly as successful as we know we can be.”
Doré also said that the district had been planning to form an alternative version of a SEAC, called a Special Education Partnership Group (SEPG), for over a year. She said that administrators, educators and other stakeholders had already agreed to sit on the committee, and that the first meeting is anticipated to take place in January.
The delay to form and announce the group, she said, was due to the restructuring of Summit into its own administrative unit as well as waiting for the state to provide its own advisers.
She also said that details about a selection process for parent representatives will take place in January. On how a SEPG is different from a SEAC, Doré said via e-mail, “SPEG is Summit’s unique take on the same tenets of SEAC.
The membership I shared will include a variety of stakeholders that have an interest in Special Education in our county. The first few meetings will be important as the group discusses our shared purpose.”
Ashton-Hirst says she is generally supportive of the school district taking action, but is waiting to hear more details of how the group will be formed, what it will be able to do for special needs children, whether it will have the same impact as a SEAC, and whether she, Sarber, Sigala and other parents who have been pushing the district on the issue of special education will be involved in it.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years, I have nowhere else to go,” Ashton-Hirst said. “I’ll fight and keep fighting for what I believe in, for my kids and other people’s kids. I’m not going to stop, and I won’t go away.”
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