State education department investigates special education class

A complaint filed by a Brown County High School staff member regarding the education and health of students in a special education classroom resulted in an Indiana Department of Education investigation and an order to correct violations.

The complaint included concerns from the complainant — a substitute teacher — and three teacher aides who said they did not have access to the students’ individualized education programs and that they were concerned about the health of two students.

The concerns about the health of the two students ultimately resulted in a call being made by the substitute teacher to the Indiana Department of Child Services, an agency that protects children from abuse and neglect, according to the complaint filed May 25.

The complaint alleged intimidation by school administrators after a call was made to the Department of Child Services regarding health issues of two students without consulting the school administration before the call was made.

Superintendent Laura Hammack said the district offers to have a vice principal or principal make the call to DCS in order to help eliminate any stress a staff member or teacher may feel about having to make the call, because “even though they are anonymous, families can understand who’s making the call and they get very upset, and it’s awful.”

“Now if an employee would rather make the call themselves because they want their voice to be heard, that’s absolutely their right; it’s just that we offer the level of using an assistant principal or principal as really being there for our employee,” she added.

On July 21, a letter from Kacie Symes, a complaint investigator with the IDOE, was sent to the substitute teacher, Hammack and Director of Student Services Al Kosinski informing the parties an investigation had been completed.

Symes discovered that the teacher of record last school year had failed to ensure that each of the students’ teachers and aides had access to the individualized education programs. The teacher of record is responsible for writing and managing the individualized education programs.

Aides had asked to see the student’s individualized education programs and were denied, according to the complaint.

The individualized education programs describe the accommodations or modifications the student needs and special education and services that will be provided.

According to the letter, Symes also discovered that the teacher of record did not inform the other teachers and aides of their “specific responsibilities related to implementing the IEPs.”

The investigation also revealed that the teacher of record did not inform the teachers and aides in her room of specific “accommodations, modifications and supports that must be provided for the students” according to their individualized education programs.

The ordered corrective action was a two-day, 16-hour-long training session for applicable staff.

The teacher of record last year was transferred to Brown County Intermediate School as a full-time special education teacher.

The teacher had been teaching in the high school’s moderate and severe special education classroom using an emergency license. She had a special education license, but not one that worked to serve students with moderate and severe needs who are in the classroom at the high school.

“I was really concerned about that and wanted to ensure that we were giving those kiddos the best possible teacher of record to meet their needs,” Hammack said.

The school district paid the aides and special education teachers involved in the complaint to attend training the last two days before the start of school, Hammack said.

“They typically don’t work those two days, but we paid them to work those two days so that they could have time to review the students’ IEPs, to work with their teacher of record and to fundamentally understand the boys and girls with special needs who they would be serving,” she said.

The two-day training session before the start of school was led by the classroom’s new head teacher, Barb Kelp.

The training session focused on ways students with moderate or severe disabilities may communicate especially if they are nonverbal. The training also explored how to use, and build, visuals for communication and how to structure a school day for students to meet their various individualized education program goals, Hammack said.

Aides also received training on ways to move students in the classroom because many are in wheelchairs, and strategies on how to calm students down, she added.

The type and amount of corrective action required varies depending on the nature and severity of the violation(s) found as well as the response of the school, Indiana Department of Education Office of Special Education attorney Dana L. Long said.

“Often the violation is minor and the school is on top of it once the school becomes aware of the problem,” she said.

For Brown County Schools, Long said the two-day training was already something the district had planned to do, but that the Office of Special Education required certain issues be addressed in that training.

Hammack has a background in special education. She worked in the Brown County school district after she graduated college as a special education teacher with students who had emotional, mild, moderate and severe issues.

“I clearly always want to have the highest quality of services for our boys and girls with special needs. I was really concerned to read that we had our own team members, as well as folks that were from outside of the community, that were really concerned about the level of services that we were providing,” she said of the complaint.

Outside of the two-day training, Hammack said the school district will now also have systemic training for paraprofessionals.

“There’s been nothing, so we’re doing quarterly training sessions that will allow for compliance for all of our legal requirements for them,” she said.

The first quarterly training session was Sept. 1. There are currently 57 paraprofessionals in the school district. In order to become a paraprofessional, a person must have two years of college completed or pass the Para Pro test, Hammack said.

The school district has about 500 special education students and 22 special education teachers.

‘Silver linings’

The BCHS special education classroom lost a few students when they moved to a group home in Bartholomew County and the classroom no longer required an additional teacher, Hammack said.

Barb Kelp is the teacher of record in the high school’s moderate/severe classroom now. Last school year, Kelp was teaching the life-skills class for students with moderate to mild issues who are working toward a certificate of completion rather than a high school diploma.

“(The class is) allowing for our students to build those skill sets to allow them to be participating members of society to the level that they can,” Hammack said of the class.

Kelp has worked in the school district since 1989 and began working as a special education teacher in 1994.

“There is something to be said for veteran experience, particularly working with students with special needs, because there are very involved responsibilities for working with our kids with this level,” Hammack said.

The moderate and severe classroom is aimed more at teaching students, especially nonverbal students, ways to communicate so that they are understood along with providing them instruction that stimulates the brain, involving bright colored numbers and letters, to make “their experience more comfortable,” Hammack said.

This school year, both the life skills and the moderate/severe classroom are “blended” as Kelp teaches both. The current adult to student ratio is 1:2 in the special education classroom.

“Honestly, this situation, you hate to go through something like this, but the silver linings are that I think it caused us to really reflect on the level of opportunity that we give for our special education staff to be able to enhance their own understanding of the boys and girls that we’re serving,” Hammack said.

Valuable feedback

Complaints filed to the Indiana Department of Education Office of Special Education are not unusual, Long said.

“It is fairly quick and easy to file a complaint. Although complaints can be filed by anyone, the vast majority of complaints are filed by parents or their advocates,” Long said in a Sept. 14 email.

The Office of Special Education has received an average of about 115 complaints per year since 2005, ranging from 80 to 135 per year, Long said.

”Roughly half of these end up being fully investigated with a report being issued,” she said.

Both federal and Indiana law provide three processes for resolving concerns, or disputes, involving the services to be provided to students with disabilities: complaints, mediations and hearings.

Mediation is a process that can be used by parents and public agencies to resolve disputes concerning different issues like a student’s identification and eligibility for special education or the student’s proposed or current special education services or placement.

A hearing is a more formal process and is conducted by an independent hearing officer to resolve the same types of issues discussed in mediation.

Complaints can be filed by any person or entity alleging that a public agency has violated a requirement under Indiana’s Article 7 special education rule or the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.

This is the first time a complaint has been filed and investigated by the IDOE relating to the special education classroom at the high school, Hammack said.

“This is not typical for Brown County,” she said.

In the future, Hammack hopes that any concerned staff member or teacher will approach their building principal or her if they don’t feel comfortable going through their principal, she said.

“I was more disappointed that we had to go the method of a Department of Education complaint because I really hope that our folks will find that our administration is one where we want to hear concerns and honor feedback and make it in a way that our team members, our folks that are in our buildings, don’t feel threatened or at all concerned about offering that feedback,” she said.

“I want to hear from them what’s going on so we can hopefully fix some things.”

Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.