Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Katherine McNulty will tell you she is passionate about getting kids necessary special education resources in public schools.
She will also tell you that her experience with her grandson, Brayden, who is living with autism, has shown her what a struggle that is.
The grandmother and advocate is part of a group called Organizing Parents Education Network, or OPEN, where members from across the state seek support and advocate for free, appropriate public education for all kids.
And that parent-led group’s frustration came to a boil when its members read the state Public Education Department’s application to receive federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The first among the pages of questions in the application was whether a free and appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities. The state said it is.
But OPEN members say that answer doesn’t reflect special education in New Mexico as their children are experiencing it.
So they sent a letter to PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski to formalize their concerns. OPEN called for change, for a meeting with the secretary-designate and for a louder voice in matters directly affecting their kids.
They traveled to Santa Fe and met with PED staff – Ruszkowski did not meet with them – and also met with Albuquerque Public Schools and Los Lunas Schools board members, but McNulty reported receiving mixed messages.
“When asked about the funding to better train the classroom staff to support our special education children, we were told by one APS board member that we would need to reach out to our legislators. When we asked the PED, we were told that each district has the control of the funds to distribute as they see fit,” McNulty said.
“Where is the buck going to stop? Meantime, our kids continue to be retaliated against, abused, neglected, secluded and restrained, thereby not receiving free appropriate public education.”
PED’s special education director, Deborah Dominguez-Clark, said the state has processes in place to receive parental input throughout the year.
“We’re working with our families, and we are always open to feedback,” she said.
Dominguez-Clark also said the IDEA application had a monthlong public comment period for people to weigh in via written feedback.
The state gets gets $98.8 million from the federal government for special education services, and New Mexico’s schools have 52,838 students with disabilities, according to PED.
Before an OPEN meeting, parents, one after another, told the Journal about their children and their families’ experiences with New Mexico’s public schools.
Some said they believed they were being targeted by staff. Some said they were ignored by school staff altogether. Others talked about their kids being expelled from school, which they say is far more common for students with disabilities than those without.
The roughly 40 parents in the group come from districts across the state and have kids in elementary through high school.
Together, they compiled a multi-page list with 45 systemic problems they say they have seen firsthand. Issues mentioned ranged from too much change in their children’s lives to school police officers – rather than trained teachers or counselors – being used when their kids are unable to balance their emotions.
“The student with a disability is treated less than the child without a disability,” the 11th systemic issue says.
Ultimately, the OPEN parents say, districts and the state aren’t providing the best possible resources for their children or staff members in special education departments.
Lucinda Sanchez, APS associate superintendent for Special Education, said that the largest school district in the state has become a hub for families with special needs children, and that some move from rural areas. In part, because of this, APS has a high special education population and a shortage of special education teachers, she said.
“Every school district in America struggles to find and secure special education teachers, and we are no different. As the special education student population continues to grow, teacher recruitment and safety as well as adequate funding will continue to be areas of concern,” she wrote in a statement to the Journal.
APS, which has 18 percent of the student body using special education services, has about 100 openings for special education staff.
PED spokesman Christopher Eide echoed Sanchez, saying one of the primary challenges the state as a whole faces is getting enough qualified teachers in special education classrooms.
Statewide, there are 375 vacancies for special education teachers and ancillary service providers, according to a New Mexico State University report on educator vacancies.
These positions are often filled with long-term substitutes or others who are not licensed or certified to teach special education.
It’s an undeniably hard job.
APS surveyed special education staff this year and found that only 13 percent of participants believed that morale was high. Many said their workload was too heavy, and only 45 percent believed that they have a suitable number of duties.
But 85 percent said they had a meaningful job.
Below are the stories of three families who say the public school system hasn’t provided for their children. Local district officials were able to talk generally but could not discuss the individual cases.
McNulty and her daughter, Jessica Bossier, joined OPEN because they felt “helpless” and “powerless” about the education of her grandson, 9-year-old Brayden.
McNulty said the third-grader at Bernalillo Elementary School has had good years and bad years in Bernalillo Public Schools, depending on his teachers and assistants.
“I blame lack of training and little to no experience,” she said.
In his prior years at Carroll Elementary, McNulty said, her grandson was punished for behavioral issues, such as hitting, kicking or scratching, by not being permitted to go on field trips or being sent away from school.
Bossier also felt punished, as she put her job at risk every time she left work when staff called and said they “could not handle him.”
“These meltdowns are usually triggers, and so ultimately it was the behaviors of staff that triggered his meltdowns in the first place,” McNulty said.
McNulty said she believes staff members need better training and resources to help the students more effectively.
Both Bossier and McNulty said they felt embattled at the school.
“The principal of Carroll Elementary was not understanding of (Brayden’s) abilities and on one occasion publicly berated (Bossier) to the point of tears in the library in the presence of other staff, kids and parents because she had tried to offer suggestions,” McNulty said.
“Blatant retaliation” came to a peak, according to McNulty, when someone at the school called the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
She said that, when Brayden was a second-grader, CYFD was called because his fingernails were not being cut and cat urine was on his jacket, because Bossier didn’t notice the stain. However, the grandmother felt that the problems could have been resolved with a phone call to her or Bossier.
Through OPEN, McNulty would learn that many parents had been reported to CYFD.
“It puts the blame back on the parents,” she said. “It makes it the parents’ fault that these kids are acting this way.”
Bernalillo Public Schools did not answer requests for interviews from the Journal.
Sarah Bateman-Twocrow, a mother of a 7-year-old boy living with high-functioning autism and an OPEN member, calls her son Arnold’s time in APS “traumatic.”
He has attended five elementary schools in his short education career but is now home-schooled “due to safety issues with restraint and seclusion,” Bateman-Twocrow said.
“All the schools secluded Arnold and used restraint continually, which only made attending school that much worse and uncomfortable,” she said.
APS Executive Director of Compliance Cindy Soo Hoo said restraint and seclusion are to be used as a last resort in the district, citing a state law that allows for both. That law says the student’s behavior must present an imminent danger to the student or others.
Soo Hoo said it’s up to school personnel to determine what constitutes an imminent threat. She emphasized that restraint and seclusion aren’t part of the discipline process, but rather are used as a safety effort.
She would not answer specific questions about Arnold’s case, saying APS officials can’t speak about individual children due to privacy laws.
But, legal or not, Bateman-Twocrow said she does not believe restraint or seclusion should be used on kids – with or without disabilities.
“The cost of using restraint and seclusion on a child is very detrimental to the child’s welfare both physically and mentally,” she said.
Rather, she says, ignoring the behavior and staying calm so the meltdown doesn’t get worse is more effective in Arnold’s case.
Soo Hoo said if parents complain about the use of restraint or seclusion, it’s up to the school administration to look into it and talk with school staff involved.
Dominguez-Clark said parents who are concerned about their child’s treatment can make a formal complaint to PED.
A 2009 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found hundreds of incidents of child abuse nationwide, some even fatal, due to the use of seclusion and restraint practices in schools. That investigation also found that seclusion and restraint practices were used disproportionately on children with disabilities and children of color.
Nationally, there is a push, through a new federal bill called the Keeping All Students Safe Act, to end seclusion and limit how and when restraints can be used.
Brandy Smotts, who is not an OPEN member, also spoke of the emotional toll of advocating for her 10-year-old daughter daughter, Payton Smotts.
Payton, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a bipolar-like condition called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, has been adjusting to a new school, after being transferred midsemester.
The 10-year-old has transferred before, from Janet Kahn School of Integrated Arts to Bellehaven Elementary School, where she started school this year.
She had transferred from Janet Khan because a teacher “dragged her out of the classroom and locked her out of the classroom,” Smotts said. Smotts was hopeful Bellehaven would be a better option.
But during a 3½-hour education plan meeting, Smotts was told that Payton should move yet again, this time to Montezuma Elementary School.
Montezuma has a program dedicated to behavioral and emotional support for students, which not all schools have. Smotts said APS personnel wanted Payton enrolled in the program.
“I didn’t feel it was presented as an option,” she said. “I felt it was presented as a requirement.”
APS spokeswoman Johanna King said the two main routes for a child to be moved to a different school are: a transfer, which is voluntary, or a placement, which is determined by a special education team “to best meet the needs of the child.”
King was not able to speak to why Payton was moved in the middle of the year, citing privacy laws.
Each child using special education services has regular individualized education program, or IEP, meetings. Before Payton’s IEP meeting, Smotts said, she didn’t have any indication Payton would have to prep for a new school.
When the mom told her daughter about the move, she said the 10-year-old was very upset.
“It’s almost like I broke her,” she said.
Since then, her daughter has had nightmares and has started sleepwalking, Smotts said.
Smotts said she doesn’t believe Bellehaven gave her daughter enough time or exhausted all options.
For instance, the mother, said she told the school that music and art were therapeutic to the fifth-grader and she has seen the benefits of Payton bringing an MP3 player to school, since listening to music is a way for her to calm down during a burst of emotion.
The school didn’t allow that, she said, adding that it was taken out of Payton’s IEP when she was at Bellehaven.
At Montezuma, the mother is planning to put the music player back into Payton’s IEP.
Logistically, the move to Montezuma was difficult for Smotts and Payton.
As a single mom, Smotts relies on transportation provided by the district to get Payton home from school each day. She prepped Payton for a new and longer bus route, which she said was a source of anxiety for the pair.
Emotionally, it was difficult for the two as well.
Payton began to cry on her first day at Montezuma, worrying about making friends at the new school.
“I don’t cry anymore on the first day of school,” Smotts said. “But I started when I saw those tears well up in her eyes.”
Smotts’ message to the district: Make special education meetings more dialogue with parent input, and less punishment.
“It’s a beating,” she said about her experience meeting with school staff. “You talk about every failure and every aspect of your child.”
‘Until changes are made’
For McNulty, meeting with APS, PED and other education officials has become somewhat a part-time job.
But she remains optimistic, saying that, with Brayden’s story and others – including those of Arnold and Payton – being told to decision makers in education, she is hopeful change will occur.
“We will continue to work on this until changes are made,” she said.