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A group of Katonah-Lewisboro parents has formed an ad hoc committee to press the district for further changes to its policies regarding special education students —specifically, those who are autistic.

Those parents, who initially sent multiple letters critical of district policy that were read by district clerk Kimberly Monzon at the May 20 school board meeting, pressed even harder at the board meeting on June 17. So many letters were sent that the board needed to take a break in the middle of the readings.

The issue first came up when the board of education’s policy committee, as part of its regular review and updating of district policies, presented an update to the policy, “use of emergency protective holds and timeout rooms.” That revision, announced May 6, added the line, “The student’s parents/guardians shall be notified of each incident of emergency intervention in a timely manner.”

The revision had been made in response to a complaint from a parent about not being notified at the time that restraints were used. Superintendent Andrew Selesnick said at the May 20 meeting that he thought the district had moved to rectify deficiencies in state education regulations, which do not contain any guidelines on parental notification of restraints.

Initially, parent letters called the revision insufficient, and included criticism of any use of physical restraint by staff. 

After receiving the parents’ complaints, Mr. Selesnick said the district would revisit the policy and come back with new recommendations. However, the tone of parent concerns intensified once special education parents began meeting to discuss the situation and sharing information about their children’s experiences. They became aware of two specific incidents that caused them to feel there were more fundamental problems than simply the issue of timely notification.

The letters read on June 17 contained lists of proposed changes that parents want implemented in special education classes. But the letters themselves became a point of contention after the meeting, when multiple letter writers complained that some passages had been redacted — or, as they saw it, censored.

Prior to the letters being read June 17, board president Marjorie Schiff made an introductory statement: “Just a brief note,” she said, “that a number of comments have been received for tonight’s forum that contained information either about an individual staff member or an individual student, and so our district clerk will be reading only selected portions of those communications that contained such information, as the district may not share publicly information that is confidential under state or federal law.”

The Record-Review was able to obtain a number of the original parent letters, and confirm that while the portions that were redacted referred to specific incidents, there were no names of either staff members or students, or even references to dates, used in the letters that would have allowed anyone to be identified.

Parents with whom The Record-Review spoke expressed frustration with what they saw as an attempt to suppress any information that could be embarrassing to the district.

Further, many parents in the ad hoc group expressed fear that, by coming forward with allegations of inappropriate actions by staff in self-contained classrooms, they would face retribution from the district — especially if they still have vulnerable children in school.

One parent who spoke on the record was Matthew Goglia, who helped form the ad hoc group. He relayed the experiences of two other parents, who had come forward with complaints about treatment their children had received in KLSD schools.

The Record-Review was able to obtain first-hand accounts of these incidents from the parents of the children involved. The parents requested they not be named for privacy reasons.

In one case, a woman spoke of her son, who was a student in a self-contained class in John Jay Middle School. She said her son was restrained 33 times over the course of two months before she was notified. The restraints, she said, lasted up to 20 minutes and involved up to nine adults. She finally received notice of the restraints in April, when she was supplied with a log of all the incidents, which the school was apparently legally required to keep. The log gave details of each incident, including descriptions of the child’s action that led to the restraints, such as throwing a cup of water or a shoe. The mother said none rose to the level of an emergency situation that warranted the child’s harsh treatment. The incidents apparently also involved the presence of other staff members. In the mother’s view, the district administration failed to take the situation seriously, as evidenced by the fact that a 34th restraint occurred the day after she was notified. She said she has kept her child home on remote learning since learning of the situation.

At the June 17 meeting, William Rifkin, the board member who is chair of the policy committee, highlighted further revisions to the policy that were to be passed that night, including a requirement that parents be “notified verbally of each incident of emergency intervention as soon as possible but not later than the end of the same calendar day,” and that full notification be made by the end of the next school day.

However, the revised policy still contains the paragraph, “During emergencies, immediate intervention by staff involving the use of reasonable physical intervention may be necessary, either to protect people or property from injury or damage, or to restrain or remove a student whose behavior is interfering with the orderly functioning of the school, if that student has refused to comply with a request to refrain from further disruptive acts.” Mr. Rifkin responded to allegations in some of the letters that the district was valuing property above safety. He denied this was the case, but noted that the line between protection of high-risk property and the safety of an individual can be very narrow, and the policy errs on the side of caution. “We want to err on the side of safety, the emphasis here being on the protection of people from harm,” he said. “Harm to property is only relevant to the degree that such harm can very quickly lead to harm to another student or staff member.”

Another parent, who also declined to be name for privacy reasons, described an incident involving her son who, at the time, was in a self-contained K-2 class at Increase Miller Elementary School. She said she had kept the story to herself for over a year, but eventually revealed her son had been assaulted by a teacher, who was dismissed soon after. This parent, who said she was known to the district, also stated she was pleased with how school officials handled the incident. She said once the incident was reported, administrators at IMES immediately removed the teacher, and she never returned to the classroom. Although she was still horrified by what had occurred, she believes her son has been treated well at the school since the assault.  

The parent involved in the IMES incident is part of a group advocating for legislation that would, among other things, require cameras be placed in special education classrooms. 

According to Mr. Goglia, several other parents with children in the class subsequently came forward with stories of alleged mistreatment by the same teacher, including children being threatened and locked in a bathroom as punishment. The Record-Review has learned that other parents have made similar complaints about the same teacher over a period of several years. Those parents wished to remain anonymous, and it is unclear whether they lodged formal complaints about their allegations with the district.

The Record-Review’s research revealed that the IMES teacher said to be the subject of parents’ complaints was included among a group of staff members that announced their “resignation for the purpose of retirement” Jan. 9, 2020, effective at the end of June the same year. That teacher, Joanne Smith, was then the subject of a new resolution included in the board’s consent agenda on Jan. 23, 2020. The second resolution once again accepted her “resignation for purposes of retirement” but this time adding “in accordance with the terms agreed upon between the parties” and with a new effective date of Jan. 31, 2020.” 

A check of the state certification website indicated that a teacher by the name of Joanne Smith, residing in the area and who held a permanent certification in special education, had surrendered that certification. 

Mr. Goglia said parents of other children in the class were never told why the teacher was dismissed, but that all would likely have witnessed the incidents, including one that was reported as violent.

“Just to be clear,” said Mr. Goglia, “all these cases of things like being locked in a bathroom involve autistic children who cannot speak, just like my son.”

Asked about his own son’s experience in the same K-2 class at Increase Miller — now taught by a different teacher — Mr. Goglia said, while he was personally happy, he had knowledge of other parents who were not but were afraid to contact the Board of Education for fear of retaliation against their children.

The Record-Review asked the school district to comment on the parents’ allegations. The district declined to comment.  

In addition to lobbying the district for cameras in self-contained classrooms, other demands from parents in the ad hoc group include training staff “to understand and respond to the needs of the neurodivergent students,” conducting a review of the specific events described by parents at JJMS and IMES, and increasing representation of disabled individuals among staff, administration and faculty.Many of the parent advocates are also lobbying for state and federal laws that would require cameras in classrooms, among other provisions.

The incidents that have been described, said Mr. Goglia and other parents, seem to indicate a larger pattern of problems, including insufficient oversight, within the KLSD Special Education Department, which the district apparently has failed to address. They also said the alleged incidents point to a broader question about whether restraint should ever be used with autistic children.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people, strongly opposes the use of restraint. In a report on interventions for autistic people, it says, “Someone may be exhibiting signs of a meltdown because of an overstimulating environment, and punishing the meltdown with restraint, seclusion, or other forms of hostile methods do nothing to address the underlying stressor and can lead to additional trauma.”

Another frequently cited study is by the Virginia-based Grafton Integrated Health Network, a multi-state behavioral health care organization serving children, adolescents and adults with complex behavioral health challenges. One review of the study notes, “The Grafton study provides clear data useful when debating against the many people who insist that there is no way to get around using restraint against ‘violent people’ because there is no other way to control dangerous behavior.” Numerous people from the ad hoc group have commented in their letters and on social media, citing such views. 

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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