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Expedience Plus Ignorance Equals Betrayal
by Christopher Fields
From the Editor: The following story does not have a happy ending. It is, however, a tale of courage and determination on the part of parents and a blind teacher to do their best for a blind child who would otherwise have been left at the mercy of a school district and an educational bureaucracy with no observable commitment to effective education for a child with special needs. Christopher (Matt) and Laina Fields are members of the NFB of Mississippi. So is Mary Evans, the blind teacher who has taught their daughter Kelsey for several years. Here is their story as Matt explained it to Mary Ellen Gabias:
Kelsey started at North Pontotoc School in 1999 at the age of seven. Before that she had received help from an outreach worker at the Mississippi School for the Blind. The last time the worker visited our home, he looked at my wife Laina and me, shook his head, and said, "The two of you will have to be Kelsey's voice." At the time I thought he was being a little melodramatic, but I've learned to my pain and sorrow that he was absolutely right. At first the special education process worked well for us. Because of Kelsey's level of development when she started school, everyone agreed that she was not ready for Braille in the beginning. School was a big adjustment for her. We wanted to make sure that, when she did start Braille, she would have a real opportunity to succeed.
After she had been in school for two years, everyone agreed she was ready to begin. Fortunately for us, a very capable Braille instructor was in our area. Although she never got her teaching degree, Mary Evans had successfully taught Braille for sixteen years. In Mississippi Braille can be taught by paraprofessionals without certification under the supervision of a certified teacher. The only time a teacher needs to have credentials for teaching the visually impaired is if the majority of the students in the class are visually impaired. I suspect the law was written this way because Mississippi is a rural state. There aren't enough certified teachers of the visually impaired to cover all the counties, especially since there are so few blind students. So school districts sometimes need to be creative. Mary Evans's teaching career began because of such creativity. Mary is a blind Braille user. Fifteen years ago the principal of a school in a nearby county hired her to teach Braille to a local blind student. She was so good at it that word spread. She has now taught Braille in six or seven counties to a dozen or so students over the past fifteen years.
Mary Evans loves her work, and she loves her students. She firmly believes that every student can learn and has a right to do so. She's patient and determined. Kelsey loved her and made tremendous progress! Laina and I were delighted. I thought the warning we had been given about being Kelsey's voice was unnecessarily gloomy. Yes, as her parents we were her voice, but she had advocates at her school too. We were working together as a team.
Then, in 2003, the school got a new principal and a new special education director. That was when the trouble started.
The cooperative relationship between the school and Mary Evans began to change. The principal, Lisa Locus, called Mary into her office on several occasions, but Mary was not permitted to bring her reader/driver into the meetings with her. Under normal circumstances this would not have been a serious problem, but the behavior of the principal and the director of special education during one of these meetings was so calculatingly disrespectful of Mary that it seems clear to me they didn't want a witness. Lisa Lucius complained that Mary had supposedly upset an aide in the classroom.
About five minutes into what Mary Evans believed was a private conversation between her and the principal, she heard a quiet sound. When she asked whether someone else was in the room, Terry Larabee, the new special education director, made his presence known. Mary told them how rude and wrong their behavior was, and the meeting continued. Five minutes later, a subtle sound alerted her to the presence of yet another person, the principal's assistant.
Finally Mary demanded to talk with the aide she had supposedly upset. She wanted to solve the problem directly with the person who had been offended. But there was no problem to solve. The aide had no idea that anything was wrong. I believe the purpose of the whole meeting was to humiliate and intimidate Mary Evans.
When I think of that incident now, I'm outraged for Mary. I'm also angry for Kelsey's sake. If professionals can treat a blind colleague with such contempt, how can I possibly trust that my blind child will be respected and valued in that school?
On December 23, 2003, two days before Christmas, my wife and I received a letter from Terry Larabee stating that Mary's services had been terminated because the district had a new Braille instructor, Joy Beth Turner. Needless to say we were very upset. Turner has been a teacher's aide at North Pontotoc for seven or eight years. I understand that she has a degree in special education, but she is not certified. Her only Braille training consists of a three-month correspondence course taught by Carolyn Davis, the special education director in an adjoining county.
I have nothing against learning Braille through correspondence--my wife and I are currently taking the course offered by the Hadley School for the Blind--I simply don't think three months is enough time to be adequately trained to teach a child Braille. Turner began the course in October of 2003 and finished it in December. The district expected her to start teaching in January of 2004. That's like expecting a person who had only just completed a basic print literacy course to teach reading to sighted children. It would never happen. Yet the school district chose to replace a competent blind Braille teacher with a woman who has barely a nodding acquaintance with the Braille code.
When school resumed in January, we told the school in writing that we did not want our daughter taught by Turner until this situation was resolved. The school asked us to attend a meeting so that they could explain the changes. By then our trust had been so violated that we declined to talk to the staff unless our attorney was present. Instead we turned for help to our elected school board. At the board's January meeting I explained the Braille system and why it takes time to learn it well. I also outlined the problems we had been having with the staff and told them how disgracefully Mary Evans had been treated. I asked for their help in resolving the problems. They told me that they would have to go over all the information and let us know later. It seemed reasonable to allow them time for evaluation, so I waited a few weeks before calling the superintendent of education, who told me the board had decided that Turner would be the Braille instructor.
In February Laina took her turn trying to reason with the board. She told them that a child's educational life was on the line. They denied having made any decision about the Braille instructor. Faced with this discrepancy, the superintendent of education said he had "misunderstood the board."
The board remained silent. The school administration remained arrogant. Our daughter's school life was deteriorating. We were not being heard, so we reluctantly filed for a due process hearing.
While waiting for the due process hearing, we believed that everything would remain the same. So we were shocked when Kelsey came home one day with a note explaining a schedule for Braille instruction. Didn't the school understand what the hearing was all about? How could they dismiss our wishes so casually? We kept Kelsey home for the next several days while we tried once again to resolve the problem with the school administration. But the district dug in its heels. They sent an official letter refusing our request to modify her IEP to postpone Braille instruction until after the hearing. They also refused to provide us with Joy Beth Turner's qualifications as a Braille instructor. Reluctantly, in order to give Turner a fair chance and to keep Kelsey in school, we permitted Turner to teach Kelsey. We were prepared to be flexible, provided our child's education did not suffer.
The first week Kelsey reviewed work she already knew. Turner's lack of knowledge of the Braille code became glaringly evident the second week when she sent Kelsey home with error-filled work. The word "that's" is correctly Brailled "t" followed by "apostrophe s." Instead Turner insisted that Kelsey write "th-sign a t apostrophe s." Many other errors showed that Turner hadn't learned how and when to use the th sign, the sign for "the," or the correct use of signs for "can," "that," "can't," "don't," or "today." Kelsey was confused and upset. Mary Evans had already taught her correct Braille. All of a sudden the new teacher was changing everything.
We called the school immediately to bring the problems to their attention. I rushed back from a business trip to support my wife in meetings with the principal. The school district responded by insisting that Kelsey's IEP be followed. Turner would continue teaching Kelsey Braille. After all, they insisted, everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Turner had passed the correspondence course. That was good enough.
For the next few days we kept Kelsey at home. I sent the superintendent a letter requesting to go before the board again in March and was refused. I was told that since I had filed for a due process hearing, the board would not intervene. So on the night of the board meeting in March my wife and I took Kelsey with us to the meeting and sat in the center of the front row. They would not look at our child. After two-and-a-half hours it became clear to them that we weren't going anywhere. By that time Kelsey was understandably becoming restless, so we sent her home with her grandparents. Only after Kelsey left did the board president finally relent and call on us.
Once again we asked the board to fulfill their responsibility as the elected officials of the district. Our request was modest. All we wanted was for the incorrect Braille instruction to cease until the due process hearing could be held. The board did nothing, so we felt we had no choice but to remove Kelsey officially from school to protect her from harmful misinstruction.
Our hearing was held on March 30 and April 8, 2004, with Stephen E. Oshrin, Ph.D., presiding. Dr. Oshrin is employed at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Sam Gleese, president of the NFB of Mississippi, and Tom Anderson, Braille instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind, testified about the necessity of good Braille skills. They agreed that the mistakes made in Turner's instruction were fundamental errors, not minor goofs. Mary Evans also testified about her experience as a Braille teacher and spoke eloquently of her belief in Kelsey's capacity to learn.
One of the witnesses for the district was Carolyn Davis, the director of special education for the Lafayette County School District. She is the district's consultant on blindness and visual impairment and the person who gave Turner the correspondence course in Braille. Although her resumé does not mention Braille training in her educational background, Davis testified that she too had learned Braille through correspondence in the 1970's. She did not talk about how frequently she had used it since.
Some of Davis's testimony differed from information she'd given me in earlier phone conversations. For one thing, she had told me Turner would be able to assess Kelsey's Braille knowledge in a few days. At the hearing Davis testified that Turner had not finished assessing the Braille knowledge of the District's other blind student after two months. Terry Larabee also testified about the District's procedures and policies and recounted his version of events. But Turner was never called to testify. We had not put her on our witness list, and the District did not call her, so we were prohibited from examining her by the hearing rules.
Stephen Oshrin ruled against us a few weeks later. Several quotes from his decision stand out in my mind. "…The district's educational program is entitled to a presumption of appropriateness, and the parent bears the burden of providing (I believe the correct word here is "proving," but the document says "providing") that it is not appropriate…." IDEA entitles a student to an `appropriate' education, rather than a perfect one…. …The district must provide personalized instruction with sufficient support service to permit the student to receive an `educational benefit,' i.e., a program that is meaningful and is reasonably calculated to produce progress rather than regression or trivial educational advancement…. It is the policy of the Mississippi State Department of Education that classroom teachers who instruct visually impaired students must be certified in the area of visual impairment only if the majority of students in that class are visually impaired. Further, there is no requirement that paraprofessionals providing Braille instruction hold any certification...Although it is likely that other, more experienced Braille instructors may indeed provide superior Braille instruction, IDEA maintains that the instruction provide reasonable `educational benefit' rather than optimum learning. … In this case the parents allowed an insufficient period of time to pass in which to determine whether the new Braille instructor could meet the provisions of the child's IEP. While a single instance of incorrect Braille material might have been confusing or upsetting to the child, it is unlikely that such an occurrence would result in permanent, irreparable harm. Indeed it is likely that many children are exposed to erroneous information provided by their teachers on occasion without suffering serious detrimental effects…."
It's clear to me that Oshrin chose to believe the district's consultant, Carolyn Davis, instead of our experienced Braille-reading witnesses. He equated errors in basic Braille literacy with getting the date of the French Revolution wrong. He seemed to feel that, if we just gave Turner more time to confuse Kelsey, all would be right with the world.
We had pinned our hopes on the law and due process. But the process failed us and our daughter. The hearing officer recommended an independent evaluation of Kelsey, but not an independent evaluation of Turner's competence as a teacher. With our trust shattered, we've decided Kelsey cannot return to the North Pontotoc School District while current attitudes continue. Therefore we're homeschooling her.
Mary Evans has generously volunteered to teach Kelsey Braille, though doing so puts a strain on her already crowded schedule. The family of the other blind child in the district moved across the county line, and Mary Evans has been contracted by that district to teach her Braille. Laina and I have been considering the possibility of doing the same, though we really have no desire to leave the place that has been our home for fourteen years.
We are grateful to many people in the NFB who have done what they could to help us. It's good to know that we are not alone, though it can still feel pretty lonely when the people who are supposed to care about educating our daughter seem to care more about bureaucracy than quality instruction. Laina and I firmly believe that Kelsey deserves the same quality education as so-called normal children. One way or another we intend to see that she gets the respect due to every child.
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