Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Education

Florida legislators grapple with future of special-needs students

TALLAHASSEE — For an afternoon, Mariah Harris wasn't just the girl with Down syndrome. She was the star of a Senate Education Committee meeting.

"I need a real high school diploma," the sixth-grader told the panel last week, her sequined headband glittering in the artificial light. "My dream is to go to college with my friends one day. I want to buy a condo and live on a golf course."

Mariah and her mother traveled 452 miles from South Florida to champion a bill that they say would let the parents of special-needs students play a larger role in their child's education. For Mariah, the proposed legislation could mean the difference between a special diploma and a standard diploma, her mother said.

The bill has spurred some of the most emotional moments of this year's legislative session. But it has also met resistance from some advocacy groups, who say teachers and other school personnel — not parents — should have the final word in determining a child's educational goals. A provision that would allow parents to contract with private therapists during school hours is also drawing ire; some observers see it as an attempt to further the school privatization agenda.

"This usurps the power of the schools at the most basic level," said Kathleen Oropeza of the Orlando parents group Fund Education Now. "Can you imagine a class of 15 (special education) kids with 15 hired consultants in the classroom?"

Federal law requires all children with special needs to have an individualized educational plan, or IEP. The legally binding contract outlines the child's educational goals and requires the school district to provide the appropriate services.

Under current law, parents and specialists help create the IEP, but the school district has the final say. The proposal in Tallahassee would change that paradigm, giving parents the last word. The school system would be able to challenge parents' decisions before an administrative law judge.

The proposal also would enable parents to hire private personnel to support their special-needs children in school. And it would require teachers seeking professional recertification to complete some of their training with special-needs students.

The bill is on a fast track. Its Senate sponsors are Sen. Andy Gardiner, a future Senate president and Orlando Republican, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker. Both have a personal connection to the proposed legislation: Gardiner's son, Andy, has Down syndrome, as does Thrasher's grandson, Mason.

But school systems have issues with the proposed legislation, particularly the provisions that would allow parents to contract with private education personnel during school hours.

There may also be legal issues, said Bob Cerra, who represents the Coalition for the Education of Exceptional Students. "Empowering parents is a great thing," Cerra said. "But it is the school district that is legally required to provide a free and appropriate education. Some school districts have actually been sued because they went along with the parents."

The debate has been intensely emotional.

Nancy Linley-Harris, Mariah's mom, described her fight to put the girl on a path to a standard diploma.

When Mariah entered middle school, her mother said, "It seemed as if there was a strategic plan to remove her from being able to get a real high school diploma anymore. … The IEP team, with the blessing from the district (special education) department, purposefully dumbed down all of my daughter's quality educational IEP goals and redid her entire document without me."

Linley-Harris appealed to an administrative law judge, she said, "and lost miserably."

Said Mariah: "My mom gets sad and cries after my IEP meetings. I don't know why."

The Education Committee responded with a round of applause and voted 8-0 in support of the proposal. The bill won the unanimous support of a House education panel later in the week.

"The question of whether parents should be considered full partners in their child's education has been settled," said Richard LaBelle, executive director of the St. Petersburg Family Network on Disabilities. "This is what full partnership looks like."

Comments
Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

Hillsborough says its teachers are well-paid; the teachers say it’s not true. Who’s right?

TAMPA — Seeking to show that Hillsborough County school officials waste money that could go to teacher raises, union director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins talked about highly paid administrators. She talked about legal fees paid to outside firms when in-...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

Sheriff: Sunlake SRO who took down student ‘did what he had to do’

At a news conference on Wednesday, Nocco identified the officer as Richard Stackon, who joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1994. Stackon has spent "several years" as an SRO, Nocco said, and he had nothing in his file "that stands out." Around 1 p.m., Noc...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Converting Ridgewood High generates excitement, dismay

Converting Ridgewood High generates excitement, dismay

NEW PORT RICHEY — Chris Dunning is a bundle of energy as he greets families to Wendell Krinn Technical High School’s first open house.He talks rapid fire about the opportunities to earn college credits and gain career training while also completing a...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Hernando schools superintendent ‘pink-slipped’ by public following firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary

Hernando schools superintendent ‘pink-slipped’ by public following firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary

BROOKSVILLE –– A room full of people wearing purple erupted in frustration before Hernando County school officials Tuesday night, scolding Superintendent Lori Romano for her recent firing of 47 teachers at Moton Elementary, which has been struggling ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Hernando school officials deny Chehuntamo charter school on second try

Hernando school officials deny Chehuntamo charter school on second try

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School Board on Tuesday denied the 2019 opening of Chehuntamo Advanced Performance High School, a charter school proposed by the same group that applied once before in 2017.The team behind the school, said to be for ...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Hernando School Board okays second district-wide survey to evaluate superintendent

Hernando School Board okays second district-wide survey to evaluate superintendent

BROOKSVILLE — A second district-wide survey to evaluate the performance of Superintendent Lori Romano soon will go out to about 3,000 Hernando County School District employees, giving them a chance to weigh in on the job she is doing.The instrument, ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations

Hillsborough’s Eakins gets high praise for finances, mixed reviews on other issues in his annual School Board evaluations

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins is proud of his record in boosting high school graduation rates and inroads he has made in marketing the nation’s eight largest school district.His seven bosses on the School Board...
Published: 04/25/18
Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

Sarasota student, family apologize for racist ‘promposal’

The family of the 18-year-old Sarasota high school student under fire for the racist prom proposal he sent out on social media this weekend has publicly apologized for their son’s actions. They also said that as a result of his actions, he wil...
Published: 04/24/18
Updated: 04/25/18
SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

SRO being investigated in Pasco County for arrest of student

LAND O’LAKES — A school resource officer at Sunlake High School is under investigation after he tried to take a female student into custody on Tuesday, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.School officials asked the SRO remove the student f...
Published: 04/24/18

Battle continues over west Pasco school rezoning

Jim Stanley does not give up without a fight.The west Pasco County parent who brought down the school district’s 2017 attendance zone revisions, leading the administration to change its procedures along the way, has filed a new challenge to the syst...
Published: 04/24/18