stunned by a litany of 'horror stories' about the
Brandywine School District's management of its
special-education program, the school board and
superintendent Bruce Harter vowed a thorough and
"We have been causing you --
and, more important, your children -- emotional turmoil and
[have] let you down," said board president Craig Gilbert,
addressing members of the Brandywine Special Needs
Parent-Teacher Association at a workshop meeting of the
board on Sept. 7.
Harter said he will present a
preliminary plan for dealing with the situation when the
board next meets on Sept. 26 with a final version ready for
board to approve a month later. Among other things, it will
provide for establishment of the special-needs taskforce
which the P.T.A. has proposed.
"We're going to attack this
with an urgency we have not seen before," Gilbert promised.
Top priority, he added, will
be determine if the district is violating or circumventing
federal or state law, as was charged at the meeting. "If
we're breaking the law, we have to find out and stop it
right away," he said.
Generally speaking, the
applicable laws require that the district use its resources
to provide effective teaching in the least restrictive
school environment consistent with a child's needs and
disability level. Those students are to be taught to and
evaluated against the same standards as so-called 'typical'
A longer range objective will
be to improve the district's standing in special education
students' performance as measured by standards testing. The
board was told that that a recent -- but until now closely
held -- report listed Brandywine as 18th among the state's
19 public school districts in that regard. Nationally, it
was said, Delaware ranks 46th among the 50 states.
Alex Rittberg, copresident of
the P.T.A., said Brandywine is going through the
motions of complying with federal and state laws mandating
'inclusive' education for handicapped children, "but you're
not educating them."
"For every grade, Brandywine
special ed students are below state special-ed averages for
meeting or exceeding academic standards. ... Scores may be
going up, but we are not closing the achievement gap between
Brandywine and other districts. Brandywine remains behind,"
More to the point, he added,
young men and women who have gone through Brandywine schools
-- many of whom are ineligible to graduate from high school,
if they haven't already dropped out -- are not prepared for
independent or self-sufficient living.
Parents, who must fight a
steeply uphill battle for "appropriate" education plans for
their children, are "frequently bullied" by district
personnel charged with developing those plans, he charged. "Many
times a parent’s knowledge of their child’s disability is
not taken seriously by the [district] even when they have
independent specialists assisting them."
and behaviors need to change at all levels." he said.
structured presentation was followed by an hour of highly
personalized testimony from more than a dozen parents, most
of whom offered what amounted to case histories of the
district's alleged failure to meet their children's needs.
Amy Gutowski said her
'severely challenged' daughter is in a class with 11 other
children at two elementary grade levels to which no aide is
assigned although Delaware Department of Education
authorizes a teacher unit for every six students.
Debbie Siple said her child's
"reading instruction stopped at sixth grade."
Maria Kelley charged "racial
disparity" in the district's dealing with special needs
Marie Kennel said that, when
she complained about an education plan, the district person
with whom she was dealing dismissed her by remarking, "What
do you expect for a child like that?"
have an adversarial attitude toward special-needs students
and their parents, according to Marie Anne Aghazadian,
director of the Parent Information Center of Delaware, an
advocacy and support organization. "There is a common thread
of dismissing what parents have to say."
Moreover, she said, "special
education teachers are not capable of writing measurable
goals and objectives" for the education plans that the law
requires be prepared and followed on an individual-student
"I am troubled and disturbed
by what you all have said," Olivia Johnson-Harris, one of
two newly seated Brandywine board members, said after
hearing the testimony.
Her voice cracking with
emotion, she added, "I came on this board so that we would
not leave any children behind. I'm very sorry the district
has let you down."
Debra Heffernan, the other
new board member, was elected, in part, on the basis of her
involvement with Brandywine special education activities.
At several points during the
testimony, board members, Harter and other administrators at
the meeting applauded parents' remarks. None were defensive
in their response.
"This is an area of real
weakness for the Brandywine School District. We have not put
as much effort as we should [during] the past four years,"
"We need to find a way to
make what we intend to do for every child in the district
happen," said Mark Huxoll.
Nancy Doorey, who formerly
was president of the board, said that, despite several years
of involvement with public education on the district and
state levels, she was unaware of Brandywine's and the
state's standings with regard to special education
performance. She called for "bringing in the best expertise
we can find to deal with this in a neutral and powerful
"This is not an issue of
money. We know there are districts with the same level of
funding we have [which] are doing much better with special
education," she said.