Two-and-a-half years ago, KUOW brought you the story of Bridget Ambrose and her son Ryder. Ryder was in kindergarten at the time. He’s on the autism spectrum. At Ryder’s preschool, he’d gotten special education services like speech therapy and the social skills training that many kids with autism need to teach them how to interact with other kids.
But during kindergarten in Seattle Public Schools, his mom said the school told her he didn’t need to be in special education. Ambrose tried to get him back into special education, but it didn’t work.
Ryder is now in third grade. He likes to memorize things, like facts about Eleanor Roosevelt and major hurricanes and tornadoes. He’s really into the iPhone geography game, Stack the States.
What Ryder doesn’t like are surprises, like fire drills. "They’re noisy. I wish I could stay home when it happened," he says. Last year, they happened every month. Ryder says if it was nearing the end of the month and the fire drill hadn’t happened, he’d get "really nervous that it was gonna happen that day. My tummy hurt a lot.” Surprises can be hard for kids with autism.
Bridget Ambrose says she’s still trying to schedule a meeting with the district to get her son back into special education. "I was told it would happen last year and it didn’t," she says. "I asked for it in October when we first started school last year. It didn’t come through, and now I’m hoping it will happen by October of this year. So we’ve lost two years where he was not mandated to receive any services from the school."
Ambrose says although Ryder is doing well academically, he has a hard time socially. He usually hangs out by himself at recess. Psychologists say child development depends on kids learning social skills along with academics. "I have to tell you, you know, as a parent who’s sitting there, watching the months go by, and watching progress that had been made slowly decline, it’s heartbreaking," says Ambrose.
But even parents whose kids are getting special education services say the Seattle School District isn’t meeting their students’ needs.
When schools skirt federal law, children lose services
By federal law, special education students get learning plans called Individualized Education Programs. IEPs guarantee students things like occupational therapy, more time to take tests, or written instructions if they have a hard time listening to the teacher. But many parents say schools are failing to write adequate IEPs, or just not following them.
Shaun Rose’s son, Tenzin, has autism, too. He’s in a typical third grade classroom. Tenzin says he can have a hard time keeping up when the teacher rattles off a list of instructions. "Yeah, that doesn’t go well," he says in halting language. "Because it’s too much. 'Cause it’s too much for ... to ... it’s too much to talk too fast."
A special education teacher is supposed to help the classroom teacher tailor lessons so Tenzin can follow along. But Rose says for the past two years her son’s special education teacher was only part time and so overloaded with students that there was no way she could give Tenzin what he’s entitled to on his IEP. "It’s been really, really hard. It’s been atrocious, actually, I can say without exaggeration. The services have been hobbled together. Much of his IEP was never implemented," Rose says.
She says she volunteered to give Tenzin’s teachers materials on teaching kids with autism, and to write the visual cues he needs to stay on task. But Rose says the teachers didn’t take her up on it.
Rose says she's seen a change in her son. "When Tenzin started kindergarten he would run to school. I mean, he was so excited to go! And by first grade he was telling me, 'I can’t learn,' and 'I don’t wanna go to school,' and pretending to be sick, and we had to negotiate a lot. And I felt really bad sending him to school all those years."
Rose says things have improved since a new principal came to the school. But she echoed the frustrations of many parents we spoke to for this story who say the quality of special education in Seattle schools depends too much on how well a school’s principal understands the federal law that guarantees services to kids with disabilities. She says the Seattle school district has lacked steady, experienced leadership in the special education department to keep principals on track. In three years, the district has rotated through five executive directors of special education. Some of them had no experience teaching special education.
Mary Griffin says the leadership vacuum in the district led to a dangerous situation for her adopted son, who’s now 12. He came to her family as a foster child three years ago. Griffin says Seattle Public Schools sent a letter home that said teachers were restraining him.
It took her a while to learn what kinds of restraints teachers were using. "One was called a basket restraint, and another was where they put him on the floor and laid on top of him, sometimes for up to half an hour at a time," Griffin says. And she says she only discovered that when she talked to his teachers about her son's past, and ways that his behavior had recently regressed.
"He would not walk. And he wanted a baby bottle, and he wanted someone to play baby games with him," she says. When Griffin talked to her son's teachers about the changes, she described her son's earlier childhood. "When I mentioned to the teachers the story my son told me about one of his biological relatives laying on top of him to the point where he would pass out, they told me that they had been laying on him, too. And I was very upset. And I told them, 'well, you can’t lay on him anymore.'"
Griffin says no one at the school or the district seemed to know of any district policy barring teachers from lying on students. She says they also didn't seem to know that it’s illegal under Washington law for caregivers to restrain a child in a way that could obstruct their breathing.
A search of the Seattle Public Schools website turned up no policy specifying the kinds of restraints staff can use on students.
Griffin says she didn’t know her rights as a parent to file a citizen’s complaint or a civil rights complaint until the statutes of limitations were up. "It’s very disturbing to me that this happened and I didn’t do anything about it," she says.
Griffin says she tried to get the district to write a policy banning that type of physical restraint, but she didn’t get anywhere. She’s since pulled her son from Seattle Public Schools.
Superintendent considers "restructuring that whole department"
Special ed stories like these greeted new Seattle Public Schools superintendent José Banda when he came to the district this summer.
Banda says teachers of special education students have lacked resources, training, and support from other staff members. And he agrees that the high turnover at the top of the district's special education department has been a major problem. "There is definitely a void in leadership," Banda says.
There have been three interim executive directors of special education so far this year. Banda says one of his main priorities this school year is to find a permanent, experienced chief for special education. "I need someone who’s actually been in the trenches, who’s been in the battles. Somebody’s who’s seasoned. Somebody that has been in that level of leadership in administration that is not only familiar with special ed needs but special ed law, building team, potentially with the idea of restructuring that whole department," Banda says.
So far special education parents say they like what they hear from the new superintendent.
Bridget Ambrose says the change can’t come soon enough. "I guess for me I feel like there is no do-over for these kids. This is it."
The Seattle Times also interviewed dozens of parents, teachers and officials about the Seattle school district's long-troubled special education department. Read the newspaper’s findings here.