Dawn Starr has been an education advocate for six years in Volusia County, with many clients in Flagler County. She wrote the following open letter to the Flagler County School District regarding an incident involving a special education student at Belle Terre Elementary last month. It was originally posted on Facebook earlier this month and has been edited for publication here.
The Flagler ESE Parent Advisory Council, a 19-member board consisting of 12 parents and seven school staffers, including the ESE Director and the Director of Student and Community Engagement, is meeting at 6 p.m. this evening at the Government Services Building in Bunnell (third floor), where the incident may be discussed, according to Board Chairman Stephen Furnari. “While I don’t believe this behavior is the norm for the vast majority of ESE professionals in the district,” Furnari wrote in response to the Starr allegations, “nor do I believe that this is what district administration stands for, it does shed light on a very dark corner of ESE in Flagler Schools.” Since the matter is headed for litigation, school district representatives are limited in what they may say.
The district this afternoon issued the following statement: “We acknowledge the concern this allegation has created. We cannot comment about an ongoing investigation or specific situation. However, all allegations are taken seriously and immediate steps are taken to thoroughly investigate the matter and ensure the safety of all students and staff at all times. It is our priority to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. We hold employees to the professional code of ethics and appropriate discipline is imposed if the allegations are founded.“
This evening’s meeting is open to the public.
By Dawn Starr
I am a private-pay special education advocate in Volusia County. I have a client in Flagler County with a child in 4th grade. This little boy has non-verbal autism, Type 1 diabetes, a seizure disorder and intellectual delays. He is able to move about independently, requires three to four insulin deliveries at school per day, and requires constant supervision due to his health conditions.
On Feb. 19, the parent, having concerns about her child’s behavior at school as reported by the teachers and aides, affixed a recording device on her child that day and the following day. I have listened to these tapes. They begin before the child is at school, seemingly in the car with the parent. Any reasonable person would conclude that they are made during a school day. Altogether, there are about 12 hours of recordings beginning with the parent dropping the student off and ending when the student is picked up.
The audio captured on Feb. 19 appears to verify that the student was left locked in his classroom with the lights off, alone, for 35 minutes by a classroom aid, reportedly at the direction of the ESE teacher (ESE is the acronym for exceptional student education.) During that time, all you can hear is the student crying and banging on what we assume is the classroom door. The rest of the room is silent. This was used as a form of discipline, possibly detention, as the student didn’t want to accompany the aid to P.E. He was posing no obvious threat of harm to himself or anyone else.
There are alleged admissions by who the parent identifies as the ESE Teacher stating that she has done this on previous occasions, saying that she just, “lets him ball his face off.” Remember, he is non-verbal, so he cannot articulate to anyone what is happening. There is evidence that multiple staff members were aware of this situation and did not report it.
In addition to the seclusion, others on the tape, likely school staff members, are heard saying things like, “yes, he’s here, unfortunately,” when the student’s name is called, and “I would beat him until he stopped if he was my kid.” Another person, believed to be a paraprofessional, is heard saying that “standing next to any of them is punishment.” And yet another paraprofessional, identified by name in the recording, is heard whispering to the student that she is “sorry everyone is so nasty” to him. I myself could identify the voice of someone I know to be a district employee, making a statement about how low-functioning the student is. That staff member is laughing along with other adults in the room after the comment was made.
As a parent of special needs children, hearing this broke my heart as it should yours.
Restraint and seclusion of disabled students is carefully regulated and discouraged. I have made available on my Facebook Group, Volusia County Special Needs Parent Group, several documents regarding federal, state and local legislation and guidance publications about restraint and seclusion. Seclusion should only be used if the child presents a danger to himself and/or others. Any incidents wherein the student was secluded must be immediately reported to the administration and the parent, and the state Department of Education must be informed. None of this was done.
To make matters much worse, the parent went to the school and met with the principal, who listened to the tape. As a result, he told the parent, as the parent has reported to me, that the school is in possession of the videotape outside the classroom but wouldn’t agree to show it to the parent unless and until the parent reveled what her intent was regarding the audio tape. He allegedly wanted the parent to return the student to school in the same classroom and only stated he would reassign the aid. The parent has not returned the child to school since February 20.
The parent was then sent an on-line complaint form to complete and submit to a district staff member. She did so on February 22 and has not heard from anyone at the school or district since.
As the family’s Advocate I am currently preparing a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights and the State Department of Education. Obviously, in addition to pursuing this with the proper oversight agencies, the family and I wish to make this travesty public. While the audio tapes are not admissible in court, we feel it is imperative that the public know the kind of people that Flagler County School District deems suitable to educate and protect our most vulnerable students.
This kind of callous treatment happens daily to our children. This parent just happened to get it on tape. As an Advocate, I would like to see this case spur an effort to get video and audio cameras installed in all separate ESE classrooms across the state.
We are demanding that an independent investigation be conducted not only into the alleged uses of illegal seclusion, but also the lack of reporting the seclusion, as required by law, and the failure of the district to appropriately respond to the parent’s written complaint and evidence.
The parent has filed a report that is being investigated by the Department of Children and Families.
Dawn Starr runs Starr Consulting and Education Services in Volusia. She may be reached by email here.