Like many special-needs parents in Hillsborough County, Claudia Roberts is paying close attention to reforms under way in the aftermath of two student deaths. As much as anyone else she wants students to be safe. But she sees a multitude of issues beyond staff training and emergency drills. "I talk to passionate parents every day who just want decent educational opportunities for their students," she said, "not the ESE portable with no access to the real world or even the school community."
Roberts, 53, has an unusual perspective on exceptional student education.
A onetime trial lawyer, she works as an advocate with the St. Petersburg-based Special Education Law and Advocacy firm.
She represents families when a child has a problem on the bus or when the principal threatens Grandma with a trespass order.
She often disagrees with the district about what classes a child is required to take and what classes will get the student ready for college or a job.
It's a high burnout job, so she does it part-time. A mother of three in south Tampa, she has a 19-year-old son, Will, who has a mild case of autism.
She finds the Hillsborough bureaucracy harder to navigate than the other six school districts where she practices.
"I don't know if it's the size or if it's the culture, but it is a different culture here," she said. "I think it's much more defensive."
There's not enough focus on academics, given the fact that only 8 percent of the students are intellectually disabled, she said. Job training is inadequate. And she finds too often that ESE students are not included with their peers.
"Life is not segregated," she said. "Being educated in a totally segregated environment only prepares you for an institution."
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Wynne Tye, the assistant superintendent who oversees ESE, said she would not argue that Hillsborough's program — or any district's program — has room for improvement.
"As an advocate, you're always going to want to push for more," she said. "Claudia is dead-on at all levels."
All but one: Tye does not think the bureaucracy is especially difficult. Parent liaisons exist throughout the district to help parents access information and services for their children. "We need to do a better job communicating," she said.
Tye said that, depending on what's in a student's "individualized education program," or IEP, the district offers a multitude of opportunities. "We do some inclusive practice even for students who are significantly disabled," she said.
But making sure special education teachers work effectively with general education teachers, consistently throughout the schools, is always a struggle. "It's a job that will never be done," she said.
Inclusion itself is not without controversy. At a School Board workshop last week, member Candy Olson said that, taken to its extreme, the practice comes at a high cost to the rest of the school system and is not even safe for high-needs children.
But Roberts says safety would improve if children with disabilities were dispersed among the greater student population.
"I think if you didn't have so many people with aides sitting there watching them, but you have kids in a more normal situation, other kids would look out for them. They would look out for each other," she said.
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On Nov. 30, Roberts took her place at a meeting of the Hillsborough Superintendent's Advisory Council for the Education of Students with Disabilities.
The group, formed in the aftermath of a landmark ESE lawsuit, is one of several that were consulted when superintendent MaryEllen Elia formed a task force to address ESE safety.
The council has taken some criticism because many of its members work for the district, or for agencies that do business with the district.
Roberts doesn't, and that was clear when she spoke. Looking right at Elia, she said, "We end up where ESE is a place and not a service. I would like to see our kids as valued members of the school community and I don't see that occurring."
Council president Ana Sanders said she appreciates Roberts' contributions. "She is a valuable member," Sanders said. "She brings her expertise and a lot of knowledge, and she brings the advocate's perspective."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]