Parents of special education students took the School Committee and administrators to task recently, criticizing them for failing to involve the community in decisions affecting their children.
Several parents accused Director of Student Services Sara Stetson, who manages the town's special education department, of not being proactive about reaching out to parents throughout the district to form a Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, or SEPAC. Instead of setting up this group, Stetson filed three waiver requests from the state law requiring a SEPAC. A waiver was granted in 2017 and expires in 2020.
SEPAC is the liaison between parents of special needs children and the school district. It is in SEPAC meetings that a parent's grievances and concerns about their child's special education needs can be heard and passed on to administrators.
A SEPAC had been in town for years but ran into controversy after some parents with special needs children accused the group of not being inclusive or transparent. Almost the entire board of the SEPAC resigned, as other parents took over several years ago.
Now, parents said during a recent School Committee meeting, they want to see the group re-established and the waiver lifted.
"I think it's in the best interest of the School Committee to follow the Massachusetts General Law and have SEPAC to provide support for families," said Teresa Schirmer, who served as co-chair of SEPAC in 2016. "I would love to see a collaborative approach, and an invitation."
Schirmer went on to say that she had been told that meetings were being held regarding the establishment of a SEPAC, but that neither she nor any of the parents she knows had been invited to attend.
"What I heard was 10 events were scheduled," she said. "I didn't hear invitations to parents to come. I heard the administration was invited, but let's also take some ownership here and invite the parents that we know are on 504s and IEPs."
IEPs and 504s are special education plans set up for individual students who need extra help in academics.
Other vocal parents like Krystal Solimine asked Stetson and the committee why a district-wide email hadn't been sent out to parents to get the group going.
Karen Winship, who recently presented a number of initiatives and suggestions for forming the SEPAC, said that since the waiver has been approved, there hasn't been a public email to the district inviting people to form a SEPAC, or any other action taken.
"These are opportunities you're missing to make a SEPAC," she said.
Stetson told the School Committee that since October, she has held and attended workshops and resource fairs, as well as met with parents at organization meetings and at coffee shops. She said there have been 10 "events or attempts at engaging in that way."
Stetson and School Committee member Susan McCready both said the former SEPAC was not inclusive or welcoming to all families. Stetson referred to the environment as sometimes "hostile" and said parents weren't attending because they were afraid.
She said she applied for the waivers for three reasons: low participation, refusal by the group's leadership to meet with school representatives, and a lack of representation for any issues aside from dyslexia.
Members of the School Committee are now even beginning to wonder when a SEPAC will be established. The compliance waiver is in place for three years, and Superintendent Sheldon Berman said there will be a SEPAC by the time the waiver expires.
"I'm missing something if it's going to take that long," said School Committee member Paul Murphy. "Why can't we just help the kids and the parents sooner rather than later? This is a lot of time on something that really should happen."
Former School Committee member Ted Teichert, who served as the SEPAC liaison at the time, said he didn't know anything about the waivers being sought, even though he served on the committee at the time.
“I was reading the application and, Sara, you stated the issue was discussed with the School Committee members," he said at last month's meeting. "Who were those members? Who did you discuss with?”
School Committee Members Shannon Scully, Joel Blumstein and McCready, who all served on the committee at the time, were individually polled by Teichert and asked if they had discussed the matter with Stetson. They all said they had not.
“You have got to be careful what you say," Teichert told Stetson. "This comes down to trust. Some of the information that was being said tonight is not correct and it’s very concerning.”
Schirmer said during the initial time the waiver was sought in January 2017, there was a board in place and "SEPAC was alive and well."
The waiver was applied for two times after the January date, before getting approved in April 2017.
"I did a Google search before I came here, and in January 2017, eight SEPAC families had reached out to me," she told the committee. "I know that I was extremely involved."