Special education task force to present recommendations to school board

·4 min read

Sep. 11—The Blue Ribbon Task Force, which formed in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the misuse of seclusion and restraint in Frederick County Public Schools, will present recommendations to the Frederick County Board of Education next week.

The DOJ found in December that FCPS had violated state and federal law in its use of the disciplinary practices against students with disabilities. Former Superintendent Terry Alban stepped down shortly after the news broke, and in January, then-Interim Superintendent Mike Markoe announced he was forming a task force to review the district's special education programs.

Twelve parents and community members joined 11 FCPS employees on the task force, which met six times in May and June.

The group emerged from those meetings with a set of 13 recommendations for the school board, which task force co-chair and FCPS Student Services Director Dana Falls will present on Wednesday.

Troy Keller, one of the district's two special education directors, will join Falls in the presentation.

Broadly, the recommendations aim to close gaps in FCPS' current special education offerings, address burnout and boost training among special educators, and provide better support to confused parents, among other goals.

The recommendations are divided into three categories: professional development, special education programming and staffing.

The goal of Wednesday's discussion, Falls said, will be to gather input from the board and from Superintendent Cheryl Dyson about which should be prioritized first.

Falls said he didn't want to identify any of the recommendations or categories as more pressing than any others.

"It would be unfair to the task force for me to apply my lens to their work," he said in an interview Friday. "There was a lot of discussion in regard to how they would be prioritized, and we ultimately landed on the categories that we were putting them in, and then not really ranking them."

During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years — the two uninterrupted years that formed the basis of the DOJ's investigation — FCPS far surpassed every other Maryland public school system in its use of seclusion and restraint.

The DOJ found that the district was "systematically and improperly" using seclusion and restraint in non-emergency scenarios, a violation of the law that governs the practices. Across the five semesters in question, FCPS recorded 7,253 cases of seclusion and restraint on 125 students. Thirty-four individual students were secluded or restrained more than 50 times each.

In its budget for fiscal year 2023, the board directed about $9 million toward a category called "additional resources for special education," which included expanded staffing and therapy for affected students.

Board of Education President Brad Young said Wednesday's discussion would be the first step in determining how the body should formulate its next special education budget as the work of reforming the program continues.

"What we're hoping to get is an honest discussion about what is going on, what we've done to correct it and what we can do to make sure we don't end up in that situation again," Young said Friday.

In a video attached to the school board's Wednesday agenda, members of the task force spoke about why they applied and what they thought of the group's work.

Angelique Vigliotti, whose son was secluded and restrained during his time in the Pyramid Program at Lewistown Elementary School, said in the video she applied to "give a voice" to children and parents who hadn't felt represented in FCPS' special education programs.

"Sometimes, it's really difficult for me, because I come to meetings with people that I trusted that had a hand in facilitating some of the abuse with my child," Vigliotti said in the video. "And sometimes I cry after the meetings. But I'm here because I'm trying to advocate for the people that can't be here."

Cara Phillips, another member, said she appreciated the diverse perspectives on the task force and that she felt its leaders approached the role with a sense of neutrality.

"We definitely have a cultural and a systemic issue here at FCPS. I don't think that's a secret," said Phillips, a parent and advocate who used to work for FCPS as its Partners for Success program coordinator.

In that role, she was a liaison between the district and parents, aiming to connect families with resources and help them understand the myriad laws that govern special education.

"I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic that these recommendations will be taken seriously, and that FCPS and our county executives will act quickly to make big changes," Phillips said in the video. "Our most vulnerable students depend on it, and now is our opportunity to ensure this happens."