DJ Deserves Better

Guest Correspondence

DJ was eight years old then, an African-American boy with an average IQ, diagnosed with ADHD and another learning disability. In the space of a week in the spring of 2012, three meetings were held by Sarasota school staff, in the absence of DJ’s mother. As a result of those meetings, DJ’s school instruction changed from a standard curriculum with accommodations for his learning disabilities, to a curriculum called “Access Points” designed for students with severe cognitive impairment. DJ remained in the improper “Access Points” curriculum for roughly seven years, with devastating consequences."

Access Points was designed for students who are not expected to be able to read beyond a second grade level, or live independently. Neither applied to DJ. DJ’s classroom didn’t change, his teacher didn’t change — just his curriculum. His mother didn’t give permission for, nor was she notified of the change. She was notified that her son “will now be on alternative assessments” (meaning DJ wouldn’t be taking the FCAT). Was this swift curriculum change, devoid of his mother’s input, a tactic to exempt special needs students from taking the FCAT and pulling down the district’s test scores? It’s an important question. Taking a closer look at the Access Points program, Exceptional Student Education Program specialist Victoria Stillo-Gross emailed the district’s ESE directors in November 2016, telling them there were 113 students taking Access Points classes who were not classified as intellectually disabled.

Sarasota County school district recognized their ongoing mistake when DJ was in eighth grade, but DJ’s mother didn’t learn exactly how Sarasota County school district ruined her son’s education until he was in 10th grade. That’s when DJ’s case was brought to the attention of two local special education advocates, Susan Memminger and Susan Magers. They uncovered the malfeasance and are assisting DJ’s mother in suing Sarasota County for restorative educational services. Memminger and Magers say in their twenty years of advocacy for special needs students they’ve never seen anything like this.

DJ is 17 now, and the School Board continues to fail him. Last October, Judge Diane Cleavinger ordered that DJ be provided an appropriate education in a private school, in addition to 6.5 years of compensatory education and services, including intensive tutoring and mental health counseling. When Memminger and Magers met with school officials last November to create a plan for DJ, school officials were unprepared to follow the judge’s order and communicated their intention to appeal. On December 10, the School Board voted 4-1 to appeal DJ’s case. In March, Judge Cleavinger ruled once again that Sarasota County school district”s Exceptional Student Education department continues to violate the law. Memminger and Magers say the School Board still isn’t providing services and is pursuing more appeals.

The emotional impact on DJ has been devastating. After being a straight A student in the inappropriately simple curriculum, the school district moved him to a standard curriculum at Riverview High School without any extra help. He was quickly overwhelmed, confused and could not keep up with the work. He became the target of bullies and threatened to commit suicide in 2018.

It is unfathomable that the Sarasota County School Board fails to own and correct their egregious mishandling of DJ’s education. Is the School Board running down the clock, waiting until DJ is 18, to negotiate a settlement when DJ may be more persuadable as a legal adult with limited understanding? A limitation the School Board bears responsibility for? Whatever their reasoning, the Sarasota School Board’s actions here are reprehensible, and there’s reason to believe other children have been negatively impacted too. Elections are coming. We need a School Board that will do the right thing.

Cathy Antunes is host of “The Detail.”

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