hollister school district building.jpg

Hollister School District officials responded to some of the concerns expressed in a letter posted Oct. 1 by Roger Brown on the BenitoLink website, where he cited his resignation from teaching due in part to the change in the way students were sorted into classes as well as a claim filed against the district in May.

Brown’s letter alleges Disability Rights California, a nonprofit advocacy group that provides legal support in some cases, is seeking litigation against the school district. Barbara Duncan, a spokeswoman for the DRC, said the agency is no longer representing a client against the school district and it is “no longer appropriate for us to speak with the press about this client.” She said in an email that the agency referred the client to Ruderman and Knox, which filed a tort claim against the district that was rejected unanimously by school board members on May 27.

The claim filed against the district alleges a student was held in seclusion for most of the school day and was subjected to other prohibited restraints during school hours (the full tort claim can be read here: https://hollistersd.csbaagendaonline.net/cgi-bin/WebObjects/hollistersd-eAgenda.woa/files/MTQwMjYwMjc4ODUwNi9ob2xsaXN0ZXJlQWdlbmRhLzEyMzIvMzQ4MC9GaWxlcw==/tort_claim_-_rsj_student_05-14redacted.pdf)

Key accounts of the mistreatment alleged in the tort claim filed by Ruderman & Knox, LLP, a law firm that specializes in cases related to special education, come from Brown and the student’s mother, whose name has been redacted from the documents.

Ruderman and Knox did not respond to email and phone call requests for comment on the case. Hollister Elementary School District Superintendent Gary McIntire said no lawsuits or additional tort claims had been filed against the district, but that there is an administrative procedure regarding such complaints that is confidential. He said he could not confirm whether the administrative procedures had been invoked by the family.

McIntire also said he could not comment on specifics related to any particular students, including the client related to the tort claim due to Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which guarantees students’ privacy and that he could not speculate on potential litigation against the district.

Karen Lopes, the director of Special Education and Health Services for the Hollister School District, said some of the para educators have undergone Crisis Prevention Intervention, a nine-hour training, and Professional Crisis Management, a 34-hour training, that teaches them techniques for de-escalation and different types of holds that protect students and others.

“Restraint is always the last resort and is seldom used,” Lopes said. “A student that would require this level of care would have a behavior plan written by the teacher, psychologist or behaviorist. The behavior plan must be agreed to by the parent, and all restraints are logged.”

Lopes said very few students require that level of support and that use of restraint is written into the Individual Education Plan for some students classified as emotionally disturbed or who are labeled as having moderate to severe needs.

McIntire and Lopes noted that the makeup of classes for students with special needs can change year to year as long as the Hollister Elementary School District provides a “Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students in our district,” following federal guidelines to ensure students have an education in the least restrictive environment.

Lopes said the dynamics of classes for students with special needs changes year to year as the needs and the number of students can vary.

“Autism spectrum disorders have quite a range – some students are high-functioning and some are integrated,” Lopes said. “Some students may have an IEP with resource support so they are spending more than 50 percent of the day in general education and less with special education.”

McIntire said in meeting the goal of providing education in the least restrictive environment, “Programs that prevent integration with non-disabled peers are generally seen as being more restrictive than programs that fully integrate students with disabilities with their non-disalved peers.”

In cases were a student’s IEP calls for 50 percent of their education to be provided by special education, the students are usually put into special day class placements which, in some years, are divided between students with mild moderate needs and moderate to severe needs, Lopes said. The classes are not limited to students with autism spectrum disorders, some of whom have other diagnoses, but are generally a mix of students with one of 13 eligible intellectual disabilities.

“Every year we look at the group of kids – it changes year to year and the needs are different,” Lopes said. “There are different philosophies of how to group students. One is that all the very low functioning kids are in one class and the higher functioning are in another class. Another group says in that case students who are the lowest don’t have any role models to look up to.”

Tana Donaghy, a senior program specialist with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, had presented to Hollister school officials a model of grouping students heterogeneously that was piloted in 2013-14. Donaghy did not weigh in on how the students were placed in classrooms, rather, she acted as a trainer and coach for our teachers. The three teachers and Susan Warner, special ed coordinator, had a meeting where the decisions were made.

“We asked teachers throughout the year what they thought and did they want to reassess,” Lopes said. “The answer was, ‘No, we don’t want to change it’”

Lopes stressed that the change in student mix for the classes still allowed for IEPs to be followed for all the students. An IEP is developed by a team that includes parents or guardians, teachers and a school psychologist. A request to review a student’s IEP can be made by a parent, guardian or teacher at any time during the school year.

“Their same goals were met,” she said, of students in the classes. “Their same work was done. The aide ratio was still high in all three classrooms.”

She said the district provides support to students through speech therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive PE, psychologists and a behaviorist, depending on the unique requirements of each student’s IEP. Six years ago, all teachers who work with students with an autism spectrum disorder were provided with an online course funded through the San Benito County Special Education Local Plan Area, which also has provided several trainings from the Diagnostic Center. This year, the district contract for paraprofessionals has two more days for professional development.

Lopes noted Rancho San Justo Middle School had a higher than average number of students move from the elementary schools to the campus, but the special day classes still maintained six or seven students per class. She and teachers met with students and their families during the summer to help familiarize students with the campus. She also mentioned that parents offer feedback through the Community Advisory Committee.

“The Hollister School District will always fulfill its commitment to each student and each student’s IEP,” McIntire said. “That is our foremost duty, even as we struggle to faithfully and carefully manage scarce public resources.”