Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
by Hayley Ringle - Sept. 11, 2012 12:47 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com
In February 2009, an exasperated Glenna Hastings filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against the East Valley Institute of Technology and Gilbert Public Schools.
For nearly six years previously, the former special-education teacher liaison between EVIT and Gilbert Public Schools claimed that the Mesa vocational school was discriminating against Gilbert's special-needs students by denying them enrollment and harassing them.
"My students became successful at both ends by going to EVIT and seeing the value in what they were being trained to do," Hastings said. "The only restrictions special-ed kids have is what adults put on them."
Hastings also claimed that GPS and EVIT retaliated against her for making the complaints. She said EVIT told her she was no longer welcome on its campus before she filed her federal complaint. Hastings ended up doing her job for a time by meeting with staff in the adjacent parking lot until the district transferred her to a new job in January 2009.
After a three-year investigation, the Office for Civil Rights agreed with her in an April 13 letter.
"We determined that students with disabilities were subject to harassment, which interfered with or denied them equal opportunities to participate in EVIT's educational programs as specified in their (individualized education programs), and resulted in a denial of a free appropriate public education. We also found you were subjected to retaliation as alleged," the 11-page letter stated.
Despite the investigation, EVIT and GPS dispute the federal government's findings and deny that "any of its acts violate the law." However, both EVIT and GPS entered into resolution agreements with the Office for Civil Rights in March to "avoid the cost of litigation," according to the agreement.
"This was so unnecessary to begin with, but it's much needed and will hold accountability to where accountability needs to be held," said Molly Miller, team lead/assistant principal of EVIT's east campus and the person who oversees counseling, special-education students and cosmetology at its main campus. "It's very, very, very hurtful when we are viewed as 'EVIT doesn't want special-ed kids.' There couldn't be anything further than the truth."
Fifty-four East Valley high schools from 10 school districts, charters and private schools feed into EVIT. GPS and Mesa Public Schools send the largest special-needs contingents to EVIT, where about 15 to 20 percent of its 3,200 students are considered to have special needs. GPS has 82 special-education kids at EVIT.
The reasons special-education students have been denied in the past are varied, Miller said.
A common problem is a student's individualized education program says he or she should enter one program, but the student is trying to enter another, she said. Some students might not have doctor releases to attend EVIT or might not have taken the prerequisites. Other students may just not be ready to enter a general-education program, Miller said.
"We have to find the appropriate placement for the student," Miller said. "Safety is critical. If they can't get the content, how are they going to be employable? And this is an issue with not just our special-ed kids."
Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Dave Allison said, "All decisions we've made have been made on behalf of students to give them the best education possible, in particular the special-ed students at EVIT."
He added: "We would send over teacher aides to (help our special-ed kids) be successful, and EVIT had the belief that certain students wouldn't be successful. But maybe with extra help they can be successful."
EVIT and the Gilbert district are in the process of fulfilling the Office for Civil Rights' eight-page agreements.
EVIT officials made sure policies were in place and updated. Because of the complaints, Miller said EVIT has started a new procedure with the nine other East Valley school districts it serves to better meet the needs of special-education students. Because a new procedure is still being worked out with GPS, this new procedure could not be applied with GPS students.
"We're hoping to do a similar thing with Gilbert," Miller said. "We've walked the walk already. We already know this works."
About 175 conference meetings were held for the first time this year for new enrollments so parents of special-needs students and their children could learn about EVIT. "It's the best thing we've ever done," Miller said.
Attorneys representing EVIT and Gilbert Public Schools also are trying to work out a procedure that does not discriminate against students with special needs. Even though the new procedure was supposed to be finalized within 90 days of signing the resolution agreement, the negotiations are still ongoing, said Susan Segal, an attorney representing GPS in this matter.
Segal said she sent EVIT's attorney a policy draft that "Gilbert has worked very hard on developing," but has not heard back from EVIT in over a month.
Attorney Don Johnsen, representing EVIT, said both sides are trying to come to a common ground. "It is slower than we had hoped, but I know we'll get it done," he said.
Last week, the Office for Civil Rights offered to help move the process along,Johnsen and Segal said.
Meanwhile, Hastings continues working at GPS as a special-education teacher at Highland High School. She started the Job Opportunities in Business Skills program, and helps her students find volunteer and paid jobs and internships.
Although she still works in the district, Hastings feels ostracized because of her complaints, fears constantly for her job and is "frightened" for the future.
"This has been terribly stressful," said Hastings, 63, a Mesa resident. "But I know I did the right thing. And I would do it again."
The federal government continues to monitor both GPS and EVIT to ensure the agreement's full implementation, according to an e-mailed statement.
Hastings, who said she has never been put on paid leave and never been disciplined by GPS, her employer since 2000, was supposed to help special-needs kids in the district get into EVIT, where students gain real-world experience in a variety of skills during half-day programs.
She worked with EVIT staff, parents, teachers and students to make sure all the correct paperwork was filled out and to ensure that the correct program was chosen for the student. The students had various special needs, from learning disabilities to emotional issues.
During the enrollment process, Hastings found that her kids were given different forms from other students. More of her kids subsequently were denied admission, she said.
"I couldn't help these kids anymore," Hastings said. "They were being treated badly. Many had their career hopes bashed."
GPS school-board member Staci Burk, a special-education advocate, said her son Matthew was unable to attend EVIT in 2009 for the automotive program because of the dispute, although he was able to attend the following year.
Burk said she heard about the resolution agreement only after requesting all settlement agreements through a public-records request. Allison said he had not told the board about it even though he signed it March 27, because "the situation isn't over yet."
Before the investigation began, a U.S. Department of Education mediator tried to resolve the issue, Hastings said.
Gilbert school official tried to get Hastings to sign an agreement, and EVIT offered a cash settlement to "make the complaints go away," which Hastings said she refused.
"I'm advocating for these kids," Hastings said. "I knew I was putting my job, career, reputation and friendships on the line for these special-ed kids. But I also knew I never did anything wrong."
Hastings also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is still looking into the claims, and the state's Attorney General's Office, which, she said, has never replied.
In her opinion, Hastings said nothing has changed.
This year, EVIT officials said they rejected about a dozen special-needs students from GPS, noting that is far lower than the number of regular-education students it turns down. The Office for Civil Rights is evaluating the allegations before starting an investigation.