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Parents of students enrolled in special education in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District — particularly, those on the autistic spectrum — are keeping the pressure on administration and staff to change district policy where it concerns their children. 

The Record-Review, following up on an article in the June 25 issue, has continued to report this story, and in addition to interviewing parents, has spoken with several individuals who have direct knowledge of district operations and the special education department.

Calls for reform began in June, after a routine review of the district’s policy on emergency protective holds and timeout rooms catapulted the Katonah-Lewisboro Special Education Department and its behavioral intervention methods into the spotlight.

Since then, the district has been dogged by allegations of inappropriate treatment, excessive punishment and a culture of silence regarding parent complaints. The Record-Review was able to obtain first-hand accounts of these incidents from the parents of the children involved. 

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. 

Another parent, who also declined to be named 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 revealed her son had been assaulted by a teacher, who was dismissed soon after. 

Several other parents with children in that 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 made similar complaints about the same teacher over a period of several years.

While the teacher involved in the IMES incident never returned to the classroom and was allowed to retire in January 2020, it is unclear whether there were repercussions for any other personnel who were likely aware of problems in that classroom. It is also unclear whether there were any consequences for anyone involved in the incidents at JJMS involving child restraints, which occurred from January through April of this year. District administration has steadfastly resisted calls to acknowledge either situation, and references to the incidents were redacted from parent letters read by the district clerk at a Zoom meeting of the school board in June. The district claimed that was done to comply with privacy laws, while parents provided evidence that their original letters contained no personal information.

In the weeks following, The Record-Review was contacted by two parents of children in the same self-contained class at John Jay Middle School where the physical restraints were used. Both requested anonymity for privacy reasons. In interviews, they said they were dismayed by what they learned, discouraged by the district’s response and fearful for their own children’s safety. They both described noticing behavioral changes in their own children around the time these incidents were happening, and said they had to find out about what was going on in the classroom from other parents rather than directly from district staff. Both said communication from special education teachers dropped off once their kids got older.

One parent said she began witnessing behavioral changes in her son during the time period the JJMS incidents were unfolding; he became irritable, anxious, and prone to tantrums, she said. “Things he never did before in his life,” she recalled observing. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘what the heck is going on?’” She reached out to the teacher and inquired as to whether anything unusual was going on in the class. “They reassured me that everything was great in school and they saw none of those behaviors that had been going on at home,” she said. A few weeks later, she was contacted by the mother whose child was restrained 33 times. “The floor opened up beneath me; I was shocked. But hindsight is always 20/20. It explained why he was acting like that,” she said. 

Her words were echoed by another parent, who said her son began experiencing abnormal behavior just after returning to the classroom after winter break. When the problems progressively worsened over the next two months, the mother contacted an assistant principal at John Jay Middle School to voice her concerns. During this conversation, according to her account, she was not told about the incidents involving physical restraints in her son’s self-contained classroom. Not long after, she had a separate meeting with JJMS Principal Jeffrey Swiatowicz and teacher Peter Iannarelli. Once again, no one mentioned the use of physical restraints in her son’s classroom. It was just a day later that she was informed by a fellow parent about the incidents. “It was horrifying,” she said. “I don’t even know if my own son was subjected to this.”

Additional parents complained of overly restrictive policies, though these appeared to be inconsistent within the district. One IMES parent, who did not want her name used, said students in the self-contained room were supposed to be able to integrate with the rest of the school, but were instead kept isolated and prevented from attending schoolwide events. She did, however, acknowledge that the current teacher has been more interested in helping her child participate. Another parent, who also requested anonymity, said she was told that district policy forbids parents from communicating directly with their child’s aides. “I understand other districts don’t have that policy,” she said. “Some people are lucky and able to go around that policy. It’s a hinderance for anyone who wants know how their child is doing. I received an email from the teacher and the Committee on Special Education that I was not allowed to communicate with them again. This happened after I connected with the aide on Facebook; I don’t even know how they found out.”

One of the same parents also questioned the type of training provided to special education teachers and aides. “What kind of neurolinguistic training do they have?” the parent asked. “Not all of these students are autistic, but most are. Is there an appreciation of what they are trying to communicate?”

In a conversation with The Record-Review, a former one-to-one aide recalled being pressed into service without receiving any prior training — which some former staff members have confirmed is common. After pointing out this practice to the then-director of special education, the aide was told, “Don’t worry, it’s fine.” The former aide contended that many personal factors influence staffing choices, with teachers choosing to work with aides and assistants with whom they are most comfortable, “not necessarily the most qualified.” The aide acknowledged that teachers and aides come with different strengths, with some placing more emphasis on academics than developmental progress, for example, and some assistants skilled at dealing with learning disabled students, but struggle working with autistic children. 

Despite her criticisms, the former aide said, “Ninety percent of the people I came in contact with were great.” And many parents in the ad hoc advocacy group say they are pleased with their own child’s situation, but are disturbed by what they see as the district’s lack of transparency and failure to acknowledge problems that do exist. 

The former aide observed that many administrators and staff members were familiar with all the students in a self-contained classroom and greeted them by name, but that the director and assistant director of special services rarely had contact with anyone. “You need directors who are hands on and engaged,” the aide remarked.

In an attempt to provide historical context and perspective, The Record-Review spoke with a former special education administrator and a former staff member, both of whom asked that their names not be used. Also interviewed was Lorey Leddy, currently chair of the Town of Lewisboro’s Advisory Committee for the Disabled and former president of the Katonah-Lewisboro Special Education Parent Teacher Association, who spent years advocating for her own child, who is now an accomplished college student.

Ms. Leddy said, in her opinion, there is consistency in how the district reacts to challenges. “They’ve got lawyers who micromanage the district’s reaction to every complaint,” she said. “I’m a lawyer myself, so I understand what is going on. They are told not to say anything — no apologies, no comments. As a parent, I would want some sort of acknowledgement. But that will never happen in this district, because that is something that can be used in a lawsuit. That’s been the case ever since Bob Rolle was here; you are never going to get the district to acknowledge anything.”

Robert Rolle was the interim district superintendent appointed in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, with a clear mandate to reduce costs. In Ms. Leddy’s view, that marked the start of the special education department being targeted as “the place they go to slash budgets,” a philosophy that has remained, to varying degrees, in place ever since. She said prior to that, Katonah-Lewisboro had been a destination district for special services. “When people saw that special ed took up a large portion of the budget, there became community support for cutting the spending,” she said.

Ms. Leddy and others interviewed agreed that the atmosphere and philosophy in the special services department were more parent-friendly in the past. They said that parents were kept informed, with direct communication from both the classroom personnel and administrators, and that CSE meetings were collaborative and supportive. “There’s been an attitude change,” said Ms. Leddy. “That parents now feel they must bring an advocate or lawyer into a CSE meeting is tragic.” 

A former administrator concurred. This individual, who asked not to be named in order to discuss school-related matters, said that while educational philosophies shift over time and the district may have perfectly good reasons for what it is doing, there is clearly a problem. “The fact that so many parents are upset and have developed an adversarial mindset is bad,” said the administrator.

The Record-Review this week sought comments from Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick and Board of Education President Marjorie Schiff, informing them there would be a follow-up story about this topic. Mr. Selesnick responded, saying only, “I do appreciate the gesture of the heads-up.” Ms. Schiff did not provide a response.

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