Gwen Davis
Renee LaCoste and her son Michael have faced challenges with Seattle Public Schools over his autism and being able to properly care for and educate him in their system.

Autistic children experience 'dysfunctional' public school system

Parents report inability to advocate for child, little control over child’s academic fate

By Gwen Davis

Eight-year-old Michael enjoys creaming his uncle at chess. In fact, he and his uncle have played so much chess that Michael can set up his Lego figures on the kitchen counter to recreate a real chess scene from one of their previous games. “This is the bishop, and this is the queen,” he says to his mom, Renee LaCoste, and he points to each Lego figure. Michael actually wanted to play me, but I was lucky enough to slip out the house before such an interaction could occur. Don’t get me wrong, I’m confident with my chess abilities, but I don’t relish the thought of losing to someone who is 20 years younger than me.

Michael has light sandy hair, blue eyes and is very articulate. He read the first two Harry Potter books when he was in first grade. He’s memorized nearly every fact from all the characters in Star Wars. Plus, he helped his mom make excellent gluten-free cookies, warm and soft with coconut and cranberries.

This kid, compared to other third-graders, would seem that he’s at the top of the pack.

Except that he’s not. He and his mother have severely and painfully struggled over the past three years, due to Michael’s high-functioning autism and his subsequent special education needs at Seattle Public Schools. The going has been rough.

Renee and Michael LaCoste’s story

LaCoste enrolled Michael in Seattle Public Schools when he was about to start kindergarten. Prior to that, Michael attended a local Waldorf school part-time and a Head Start program part-time.

But Michael had recently been diagnosed with autism and other developmental disorders. LaCoste was told he would need an Individualized Education Program (IEP) so that he could gain the appropriate academic support. IEPs are designed for students with special needs so the learning curriculum is more targeted to their particular learning styles.

But Michael’s SPS career, starting at Schmitz Park Elementary, got off to a rocky start. In May of that year, the school had a part-time instructional assistant come to the classroom to support Michael one-on-one, as he was entitled, but when the assistant would sit down with Michael, he would get up and the assistant would work with other kids, according to LaCoste.

“At the end of the school year I complained that we needed supplemental services,” she said.

The school agreed that indeed he was entitled to more services than had been provided for him that year, and offered him a spot at a summer program, to compensate.

But the camp was for severely disabled children, including kids who were nonverbal and handicapped.
LaCoste said the camp was not appropriate for her son, and so the district offered Michael summer school in a “self-contained” classroom. Self-contained classrooms are for special needs children whose disabilities are too severe to successfully be dealt with in a general education classroom. However, they also wanted her to sign a waiver that they were not responsible for unwanted outcomes, according to LaCoste, which she felt was out of overall complacency.

Problems arise

LaCoste had been optimistic about Schmitz Park Elementary.
“Back when the school developed an IEP for Michael, they said not to worry, and that he would be fine,” she said.

Initially, Michael’s teacher was doing a “fantastic” job, according to LaCoste, and Michael was learning well.
But problems began stacking for LaCoste when Michael started falling behind academically, and the school said the focus should be on his behavior, not on his academics.

The following September, LaCoste had concerns about how Michael’s IEP was holding up, and making sure he was not secluded or restrained.

“There wasn’t a lot of support for sensory issues either, like he wasn’t allowed to wear his quiet headphones,” she said.

Experiencing violence

But classroom mishaps weren’t LaCoste’s only worries.
“One Sept. 21 I sent another email expressing concerns because Michael came home hurt and crying,” she said. “He said he was restricted on the playground without giving an understanding why. He was bullied, pushed down and injured.”

The violence didn’t stop there.

“On Sept. 26 Michael rode the bus to school [which also transports other autistic children} and was assaulted on the bus,” she said. “He had bruises and was punched in the back and side.”

“No one ever acknowledged this,” LaCoste said. “The bus driver never made a report. The bruises were not acknowledged by the principal.”

This incident, along with others, instigated a police investigation. But because both children had special needs, the only thing LaCoste could do was sue the other kid’s parents, which she was not willing – they were in the same boat, after all.

Clash with staff

LaCoste’s ultimate run-in with the school was when she went head-to-head with the principal.
Michael was severely reprimanded by the principal. LaCoste was at school during the episode, and found out the reprimanding was for something that had happened hours prior.
“I said to the principal, ‘You aren’t going to get him to comply by yelling.’”

At that point she also asked what were the school aids’ qualifications.
“That’s none of your concern,” he said, according to LaCoste.
“Actually, I have every right to know,” she replied.

“You’re undermining your own ability to support your child by questioning my staff,” he said, according to LaCoste.

LaCoste turned around and walked away from him. That night, at 9 p.m. he left a message that Michael needed to understand the consequences of his behavior and would be put in solitary confinement.
LaCoste decided to not send Michael back to school. She further requested of the principal to not call her cell phone, but keep communication on the record with meetings and emails only.

But the principal responded to the email with an email that said approximately: Thank you for telling me Michael will not return to school. I will continue to call, according to LaCoste.

A call for help

LaCoste reached out to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for help. An employee there suggested that LaCoste get an ombudsman for a new IEP meeting.
Michael had been out of school at this point for one month. LaCoste and the IEP team established that Schmitz Park Elementary would no longer be an appropriate placement. LaCoste talked to the district representatives who said there was a seat at Pathfinder K-8 Elementary School.

However, he would be in a self-contained classroom until he is fully assessed again. Then he could move to a general education class.

But after talking with the self-contained classroom teacher, and discovering how the schedule didn’t include academics, LaCoste objected.

The contact however said it’s important that an adult bonds with Michael, and doesn’t harm him anymore, and in three weeks the team will reconvene and move him into a general education class. LaCoste trusted this advice.

Miscommunication

Michael got a Service Model 4 (SM4) status and was put in a self-contained classroom, as planned.
However, a few weeks later, the representative emailed LaCoste and said Pathfinder didn’t have a general education seat, and Michael would have to stay in a self-contained classroom.
LaCoste was not OK with this, and talked with Alki Elementary School. The school was based on positive, confidence building, which is what Michael needed.

However, in order to get into the school, he needed to get a new assessment, and out of the SM4 status which would could only be from an outside evaluation. However, the district denied an outside evaluation.
“I called the school principal at Schmitz Park to say Michael needs another evaluation before going forward. SM4 is not appropriate,” LaCoste said.

But the district wouldn’t provide the assessment. Michael was stuck with the SM4 label. Furthermore, LaCoste was notified that Michael was placed at the K-5 STEM at Boren school with his SM4 label. She did not consent to this. She had wanted Michael to go to Pathfinder. But the district denied this request.

At this point, LaCoste didn’t know what to do. She contacted lawyers, justice associations and nonprofits to get more help. Michael had been out of school for roughly six months at that point.
And at this time, he is still out of school.

“He’s enrolled in nothing right now,” LaCoste said. “I can’t afford private education. I am tutoring, but I don’t have the money to pay for it.”

Because of Michael’s struggles with school, and the hefty bills it entailed, LaCosta has lost her job, lost her house and lost her car.

LaCoste’s main concerns for SPS:
1. The schools hire inadequately trained aids. They are not qualified to work with autistic children.

2. The district fails to provide the services required for special needs children.

Odetta Owen and her son’s story

“It was nasty,” Odetta Owen said to describe her experience with her autistic son and SPS. “I had to get nasty to get basic stuff. Stuff that should have already been done. I was bullied.”
Owen’s son (whose name Owen preferred not to disclose for this article), has autism and, like LaCoste, has painfully struggled.

“I was considering the West Seattle Elementary [3rd through 5th grade} self-contained classroom for special needs, high-functioning kids,” Owen said. “The teacher had a background in behavioral disorders, and a lot of cross over, and she presented herself very well. I was prepared to work with her 100 percent to make sure my son supported.”

“I was a team-player from the get-go,” she said.

And being a team-player is essential for parents with kids who have special needs, she explained.
“You will do anything to make sure your child doesn’t get labeled or you don’t get labeled as uncooperative,” she said. “You don’t want him to get kicked out of school.”

One committed parent

Owen went to school with her child every day for 100 days.
“I never got paid for it,” she said.

“In the classroom I saw the teacher had a pattern. I didn’t disagree with it, but I could see the teacher was using strategies that would escalate the student,” she said.

“But the classroom teacher refused to take any feedback. She would say ‘this is a great idea’ but not do anything about it. I couldn’t leave my son with the teacher because in just an hour she would rally him up again,” Owen said.

At Christmas, Owen found herself clashing with the administration.

When Owen refused to go along with a decision, Owen was told she was being negative and controlling.
The next day she got called into a meeting and was told she couldn’t be in the classroom anymore.
“I respected that,” she said. “They were allowed to do that. But I asked what was going to be different if my son got stressed out?”

She knew the classroom support would be unhelpful.

No safety net

“I could not bring him back to school,” she said. “There was no safety net for him – nothing.”
Owen got legal counsel.
“They know you’re a single parent and don’t have any money,” she said of SPS. “I was able to network, and arranged to bring several people with me to the IEP meeting.”

The district representative tried to “bully” her, Owen said.

“I knew exactly what I wanted – for placement at another school.”

But they told Owen they needed to give the teacher another chance.

“My kid is not a guinea pig,” she exclaimed.

Owen’s son was angry he was moved to another school. His friends where at West Seattle, as well as his sister.

For the rest of the year Owen’s son had a hard time controlling his behavior.

A storm blown over

But after all the stress, finally Owen’s son got a seat at Pathfinder.

After three weeks of being out of school, the situation got brighter.

“Pathfinder has been great,” Owen said.

“But it was an awful thing to have to do to a child,” she added. “To uproot him because the teacher wasn’t able to do her job.”

“I was in the classroom every day for 100 days. I saw a lot of breaches of conduct while I was there. I have all those documented.”

But Owen’s days at SPS are not bad anymore; in fact they are quite good.

“He has a great teacher at Pathfinder, who has listened to everything I said and I see her every day,” Owen said.

Owen knows there are lots of families in her situation with autistic children who are struggling and suffering through the public school system.

“Don’t give up,” are her words of advice.

Owen’s main concerns for SPS:

1. The staff is not trained in working with autistic children. This lack of knowledge makes special education children emotionally and academically suffer.

2. There is not enough funding. The district doesn’t give the schools enough money to the point where special education is dysfunctional.

3. Families are marginalized. Parents get bullied. They’re afraid that if they speak up, their kids they will get punished.

Seattle Public Schools respond

“One of our biggest challenges is making sure we are communicating to families and to our teaching staff,” said Zakiyyah McWilliams, executive director of special education. “This is a challenge because we really want to make sure we are sending out accurate messaging.”

“It’s an area we are challenged and we need to improve in,” she said.

McWilliams also remarked on the qualifications of staff.

“We need more professional development for our staff,” she said. “This is not just for special education, but also for students who are included in our general education program. All teachers need to have strategies to deal with disabled students.” Leadership is key.

"We need to build effective leadership so staff understands disabilities, and how we work with children who are disabled and their families,” she said.

Credentials

However, McWilliams indicated that while teachers need training in special education, instructional assistants do not.

“Instructional assistants need at least two years of college or 60 credits,” she said. “We prefer they have experience working with children, but it’s not required, it’s preferred. We provide training.”

District-wide, there are 618 instructional assistants. 97 of them are one-to-ones or one-to-twos depending on the case.

There are 575 teachers in special education.

McWilliams said that currently SPS is working on meeting all of the criteria of the new Special Education Comprehensive Corrective Action Plan (CCAP). Created by the OSPI, the plan provides SPS new criteria for serving students with disabilities.

SPS must comply with all the criteria by June 30.

“The areas we are most compliant in already is IEPs being written on time,” she said. “Student evaluations are also written on time. For both of these items not only are they on time, but also they are the quality that is expected.”

Funding is part of the picture.

“Another area is how we ensure internal control with regard to special education funding,” she said.

However, McWilliams did not divulge criteria items from the CCAP that was not being met at this time.

“We are working diligently to create a partnership with the parent community,” she said. “That includes the PTSA, the Special Education Advisory and Advocacy Council (SEAAC)”.

“A last resort”

McWilliams responded to the issue of seclusion and restraint procedures for special education students.

“There are ‘safe rooms’ where students have an option if they are feeling angry; to go to the safe room to help themselves deescalate,” she said. “Often teachers go into the room with the youngster to deescalate.”

If a student chooses to go in and close the door, a staff member must go in with the child.

But McWilliams added:

“Do we need new training to include all the staff that work with students with disabilities? Yes.”

Restraints are to be used as a last resort, and only when students are at danger for hurting themselves or others.

“The district has two behavioral specialists – parents are welcomed to talk to them,” she said.

Incidences when a staffer has to report a behavioral incident follow one protocol, whether the student is general education or special education.

The stats

The district overall has 7,400 students with special needs.

There are eight to 10 students in a self-contained classroom. The district has 45 self-contained classrooms.

The average adult to student ratio in a self-contained classroom is eight students to three adults – one teacher and two instructional assistants.

All 97 schools have a special education program where special education students are mixed with general education students.

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