Editor’s note: The following is an open letter to the community jointly written by 19 members of the Katonah-Lewisboro School District Special Needs Advocacy Group. They requested their names not be used to protect their privacy.
How would you feel if a teacher wrapped both hands around your young child’s throat or pushed them into a wall? How would you feel if the police said your child wasn’t hurt enough?
And, how would you feel if your child couldn’t actually tell you why they’re so upset?
KLSD’s special education program needs a dramatic turnaround, starting with transparency and retraining. Perhaps, most of all, it needs something no amount of training can instill: regard for the humanity of our most vulnerable children — those who are unable to advocate for themselves.
When one of us came forward to share that our non-verbal, autistic 13-year-old child was restrained (placed into a physical hold) 33 times over two months before the administration disclosed any of this information, this group was horrified.
And then it got worse. Other parents of special needs children spoke up about traumatic experiences they would rather forget. We shared stories that included putting young children in the bathroom as a “punishment for bad behavior,” unexplained bruising, throwing a young child into a wall, and strangling a young child. All of these children have autism. Some are verbal, some aren’t.
Our children’s behaviors began to change — sleeplessness, fear of the bathroom, uncharacteristic anger, unexpected return of seizures. When we asked if anything happened at school, we were told “no.” We were lied to. Finally, two aides came forward and shared what had occurred over the past several years.
In many instances, we weren’t notified until months, and even up to a year, after the incidents occurred. The district has since changed their notification policy when it comes to restraints.
But on all other concerns that have been brought before the board, the district has remained silent. Yet the administration contacted us individually to share what happened to our children, minimizing what occurred as a one-off event or one that wasn’t that big of a deal. They’re not in denial. They simply refuse to apologize to parents or discuss with the larger group. Why aren’t they asking for our input?
Recently, Andrew Selesnick expressed that he saw value in consulting with outside experts to improve the district’s facilities. But on this far more important topic, it appears he and the board are more interested in consulting with attorneys and the very staff who are responsible for these failures. They have given us the impression that they view this issue as a legal matter of low priority, when, in fact, it is a matter of ethics, pedagogy and safety. It is time the district devoted their energy and resources to a careful study of these issues and reached out to the appropriate experts, not their attorneys.
They asked us to trust them with our children, but they have violated that trust. At the July 1 Board of Education meeting, it was stated that the board is “at a disadvantage” because they are not allowed to speak. But it is our children who literally cannot speak, something they exploited repeatedly with each unreported incident. They’ve created an “us versus them” mentality. It makes us wonder, is the idea that the less parents know, the better?
As a group, we have asked for information and dialogue with them, yet we are dismissed or ignored by those at the highest levels of the organization. So, we provided suggested policy changes, including placing cameras in all self-contained classrooms, that are based on substantial research into best practices, federal recommendations, proposed federal laws, and even laws that are on the books in states such as West Virginia and Louisiana. We have yet to hear back.
The administration’s standards towards general versus special education students are starkly divergent. When it comes to special education policies, the district seems to have adopted the minimal legal requirements as their performance standards. And the special education budget was cut again this year, even though the district knew multiple staff did not have the proper support or facilities, which led to mistreating children. It leaves us to question if the district is even concerned about the vulnerable children placed in their care.
If this administration and Board of Education are not willing to acknowledge these failures, educate themselves on the most up-to-date approaches and make significant changes, they are setting an exceptionally poor example for our children: one should do the easy thing, as opposed to the right thing.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Our district could become a leader in our state. They could change their policies and become a safe place for our community’s most vulnerable members. But currently, they don’t measure up.