Last week’s cover story generated lots of reader reaction. Titled “Classroom Divide,” it focused on the challenges facing some special-needs students in South Burlington. Specifically, one couple alleges their daughter was abused by a school worker; South Burlington, in turn, has issued a restraining order against the parents. Although the story focused on a few extreme cases, it illustrates a growing conflict between financially strapped schools and students who require tremendous assistance and public resources to reach their full potential.
We are Not Alone
Thank you for writing [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. I do believe that, as a state, we are failing children with special needs. We have a 5-year-old son who has autism, and we have been so extremely dissatisfied with the special-education program here in Vermont. We have had to hire lawyers to get more services for our son. I hope that this article sheds more light to the community so they can start fighting for more funding. Again, thank you for writing such a great article. Also, thank you to the Kisonak family for telling their story and frustrations. It makes me feel good as a parent to know that I am not alone.
Thank you for writing [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. I am a parent of a third-grade child on an IEP plan at Orchard School in South Burlington. It has been an absolute nightmare working with Joanne Godek and the rest of Orchard School special-education department. My son, Ethan, is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, undetermined mood disorder and ADHD. Ethan also struggles with reading comprehension. At the end of his second-grade year, which was last year, I filed charges of physical abuse on the principal, Mark Trifilio, but there wasn’t enough evidence without a 7-year-old boy’s statement. Ethan was too scared to speak to the investigator.
I picked Ethan up one afternoon, in a room the staff didn’t want me to enter, and found him rolled up in a ball in a corner, in a room by himself with three adults standing over him. Ethan was soaked in sweat, crying. Ethan had finger marks around his neck where he was grabbed, and had several bruises, which were documented by his pediatrician. My son was traumatized by this event.
Over the summer I requested a variance from South Burlington School District for Ethan to attend a different school. Ethan’s physician, his counselor and I felt it was in Ethan’s best interest to have a fresh start at a new school. My variance request was denied. I was told they didn’t see any reason to approve my request, that Orchard was more than capable of educating Ethan. I had no choice but to send Ethan back to a school that he didn’t feel safe at. It breaks my heart when Ethan asks when he can go to a new school.
South Burlington is great for children who are able to conform to the average public school education program. I also have a daughter who is enrolled at Tuttle Middle School and attended Orchard. I couldn’t be happier with my daughter’s education, and I am very proud of her, but she doesn’t require special help.
I feel for any parent who has a child who requires special education at Orchard.
The unaddressed question in “Classroom Divide” [March 30] is the issue that we spend almost 15 times as much on special-ed students as on other students. Principles are absolute, but financial decisions are unavoidably relative, so this choice has come with a consequence for all other students. For a current example: Edmunds Middle School is spending $10 million to put in an elevator that will give partial access to some of the school to a few disabled students who could get an equivalent education a few minutes away at Hunt. Meanwhile, hundreds of less privileged students at schools like Wheeler and Barnes lack basic needs like lunch, books and comfortable out-of-school learning environments. That money could help so many more students if decisions were made with relativism rather than off of absolute principles.
Considering the disproportionate investment in special-ed students’ needs, traveling a few more minutes to an equivalent school is not too much to ask in return. But a stance against special-needs students is a political loser for policy makers. When people leave our school systems because they are not adequate, and other underprivileged children suffer needlessly, while the parents of special-ed students flock to Vermont to take advantage of our generosity, one knows we have an imbalance. Special-ed students deserve special attention and much more spending per capita, but not this much. An appropriate ratio of increased spending for special-ed students should be set, and otherwise, funds should be distributed based on the greatest good for the greatest number.
Read Between the Lines
As a special-education director in central Vermont and someone who reads your newspaper on occasion, I was surprised and appalled that you would print a story such as [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. Not only was there an obvious conflict of interest, the story was unfair to Joanne Godek, a highly respected special educator, and to public school districts. There is no way that an individual or school district can defend themselves against any of the factual or embellished comments made, due to confidentiality requirements. Why would Seven Days opt to print a story with name calling and character-damaging statements such as “parent hater”?
Readers must read between the lines in a story like this. Why would a school go to an extreme of not allowing parents to enter a building? I am certain that your readers will realize that there are other perspectives to the events portrayed in this story. It is exhausting for parents of children with significant disabilities. These stories highlight the need for more human-services resources for parents beyond what the public school can realistically provide.
Editor’s note: The term “parent-hater” did not appear anywhere in last week’s cover story. The closest approximation came from Linda Luxenberg, the parent of an autistic boy. She described Joanne Godek, South Burlington’s director of educational support systems, as “antiparent.”
Put Egos Aside
Given that Rick Kisonak writes for Seven Days, the anti-South Burlington slant isn’t surprising [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. It also, though, isn’t good reporting. With the sheer volume of students that pass through the school system each year and only a “handful of families in the district who have complained bitterly about the quality of instruction,” the headline — and primary focus of the article — is misleading.
My biggest concern, however, is where the Kisonaks place their priorities. They’ve been unhappy with South Burlington schools since their daughter was 5. And yet, there she remains. They could take advantage of private education or even “school choice.” Maybe Essex or Colchester would be a better fit for their daughter’s needs. The Kisonaks’ continued legal action is in the best interest of nobody. Their relationship with the school system is now “toxic,” they remain unhappy with the services their daughter is getting, and South Burlington is spending countless dollars on court fees that could go toward furthering the education of other South Burlington students. Federal law aside, at what point do they put their egos aside and do what’s best for their daughter?
Kudos to Seven Days for attempting to approach the topic of special education [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. As the number of children with autism keeps growing, so should our concern for the services they are receiving. To bring attention to such an issue is appreciated by the many special educators, specialists, families and individuals whose daily lives are touched by autism and other mental disabilities.
The approach of the subject, however, is something I must contest. This one family was highlighted because it is a rare case. Most families do not demand to observe the services provided. Do parents of a neurotypical child go to school to observe three days a week if they suspect their child is being treated unfairly?
By singling out South Burlington, one of the wealthier school districts in the state, this article overlooks the myriad problems schools face in special ed. Go to any other school district and you will find many underserved children with autism, and faculty unable to effectively create successful programming for their caseloads. These children are being thrown under the bus, so to speak, because there is neither the funding nor the advocacy for the services they need. This is a problem that needs to be addressed statewide, especially with the threat of cuts to mental health funding. The spotlight needs to be widened to include all children.
System Doesn’t Work
[Re: “Classroom Divide,” March 30]: After 20-plus years as a parent dealing with the special-education system both in Montpelier and in Virginia, I must say the system doesn’t serve the needs of children very well. Funding and accountability are systemic problems that must be addressed at the state level for the good of families all over Vermont. Unlike the Kisonaks, however, I now have hope for a cure for autism, since a recent University of Miami study linked 85 percent of cases to the retrovirus XMRV.
This article makes me sick [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. I don’t know which is worse:
1. The idea that our community is not doing the best it can to assist its disabled (I would love it if someone spent $200,000 a year educating me) or,
2. That it looks like the Kisonak family is spending its resources fighting the system instead of actually enriching their child’s life.
Either way, a shift in approach from acrimony to cooperation seems like a good idea.
“Kids With Special Needs,” Please
Thank you for bringing light to the issue of special-education needs and services for our children [“Classroom Divide,” March 30]. I enjoyed learning about the differing experiences of families in South Burlington.
I thought that the story was well-balanced and well-written until I read the last sentence and just shook my head to read the author refer to children with special needs as “special-needs kids.” It’s more than a case of political correctness here; these are children or kids first and foremost.
Learning Is Lifelong
In Ken Picard’s thoughtful article on special education in the South Burlington School District [“Classroom Divide,” March 30], I am quoted as saying that Ashley [Kisonak]’s language skills “plateaued” in 2007 and have since regressed. What’s important to realize is that, just because students plateau or regress doesn’t mean they can’t move forward again. Human beings are lifelong learners. Most of us are capable of self-directing our learning over our lifetimes and, no matter what our age, continue to gain knowledge. Unfortunately, many students with significant disabilities have to depend upon those around them to facilitate learning. When students plateau or regress, we must redouble our efforts to help them progress.
Mary Sweig Wilson
Wilson is president of Winooski-based Laureate Learning Systems.