Leave no child behind
Parent concerns shine new light on how PUSD handles children with autism
By Sara Cardine 06/23/2011
On the evening of June 6, Tony and Mary Brandenburg convened with friends and fellow parents in front of the University Club of Pasadena. In just one hour, Pasadena Unified School District officials, parents and teachers would start arriving for an awards ceremony intended to honor the efforts of those who work on behalf of more than 2,200 students in the district’s special education programs.
But the Brandenburgs weren’t there to celebrate — they were there to protest.
Members of their small group assembled around a pickup parked in front of the club entrance and festooned with posters reading: Inclusion means everyone. Bullying is not OK.
The parents’claim? Their 8-year-old son, whose name they asked be withheld, was bullied out of his second-grade class at Sierra Madre Elementary School by classmates and their parents, the latter of whom, they report, held meetings off campus to discuss his removal. His crime? Unruly behavior brought on by autism.
According to their allegations, the parents went as far as filing police reports against the second-grader without notifying the Brandenburgs beforehand. The police dropped the matter, but now the couple says PUSD wants to place the boy in Five Acres, a therapeutic nonpublic school for emotionally troubled children.
“They are not offering even a single, less restrictive option within PUSD, nor allowing access to typical peers,” Mary Brandenburg said.
The situation may have been avoided, she suspects, if those around him knew the tantrums were part and parcel of his having autism, a condition that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate affects an average of 1 in 110 children in America, and 1 in every 70 boys.
As autism rates continue to climb, so too does the demand for more teacher training, anti-bullying campaigns and meaningful awareness. Fomentation among parents like the Brandenburgs is not always toxic — often it can drive needed improvements within school districts’ autism programs.
Such is the case for PUSD. In May 2010, newly hired Special Education Director Elizabeth Blanco met with a group of parents of students with autism who had been meeting at a private residence to discuss their collective disappointment in the treatment of and lack of resources for their children.
“I’d asked them to come back to the district and have meetings at the district, so they could work with us more formally,” Blanco said.
Talking with the parents Blanco, a former special education teacher, realized more might be done to answer the need for better autism services. She asked the parents if they’d consider working as an ad hoc advisory group under the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), a parent-run group that advises PUSD’s special education effort. Soon after, the district commissioned an autism audit to determine what was working and what improvements could be made.
The audit, conducted by Altadena-based autism consulting group Education Spectrum, looked at a random sample of PUSD elementary schools and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of autism-related training, practices and instruction in the classrooms they visited.
The audit indicated that teachers and instructors were eager to learn more about evidence-based best practices but lacked access to consistent training resources and expertise. It stated that, while some classrooms and teachers used such practices, application was inconsistent.
“A philosophical shift needs to occur,” the audit suggested. “In order for PUSD to develop an effective educational program for students with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], use of reinforcement strategies and a belief in the need for such programming must occur.”
Blanco says the 32-page document was meant not to evaluate any teacher or classroom in particular, but to provide a launching point from which the district could build a more comprehensive autism program.
“This document helped us know where we need to go next,” Blanco added. “It was more of a starting point for us to build our autism program.”
As a result of the audit, PUSD made provisions for the hiring of an autism specialist; though four candidates have been offered the job, Blanco said no one has stepped up finally to take the position, which remains open to date.
PUSD also hired behavior specialist Jacqueline Marvel to help lead efforts to train teachers and build important relationships between the district and autism organizations, researchers and parent groups that may help foster increased awareness. Marvel, who previously worked for PUSD as a school psychologist, credits parent involvement and Blanco’s leadership for the changes she’s seen since stepping into the position last August.
“There have been vast improvements in a short amount of time,” Marvel said, sharing PUSD’s plan to create a social day camp for children with autism and a full continuum of special education services for pre-school through fifth-grade students at Webster Elementary School set to launch next year. “A lot of that, honestly, is in response to parent activism and Liz’s leadership.”
At this point, the Brandenburgs aren’t looking to get their son back into classes at Sierra Madre Elementary School but would like to discuss how his needs might be met within the district. While they would ideally like the parents and school staff to admit what happened during the meetings they held about their son, for the sake of closure if nothing else, their request these days is plain.
“We’re asking the district to do some educating,” Mary Brandenburg said. “We need to fix this, open our eyes and shine a light.”
This could be accomplished by providing better training for all teachers, parents and even students to raise awareness of autism spectrum disorders and their associated challenges and behavioral symptoms, according to Tony Brandenburg.
“General education staff districtwide should be held accountable in supporting inclusive education or be placed into a district teacher training program or be removed until compliant,” he added.
PUSD parent and past CAC Chair German Barrero agrees. Barrero and his wife, Rosie, attended the June 6 vigil as parents of a child with special needs who attended Sierra Madre Elementary from 2004 to 2007. During that time, Barrero said in an email interview, the couple saw the same exclusionary attitudes and segregation the Brandenburgs described.
“Clearly, there is a need to educate PUSD parents, teachers and administrators in the area of tolerance for all students,” Barrero said. “Lack of will, tolerance and training made it easier to ostracize than accommodate.”
Blanco acknowledges there is “a huge need for behavior training throughout the system,” but also believes the district is in a cycle of continuous improvement. She encourages families of children with special needs to get involved in the CAC and participate in the changes taking place.
Meanwhile, the Brandenburgs are uncertain what will happen with their son when school starts in the fall. Both have past work experience as special education teachers, so home school is one option. But that won’t provide their son with the important social contact that research shows benefits children with high-functioning autism.
“He wants to be with people, but he doesn’t always know how to do it,” his mother said, describing his confusion at not going to regular classes. “Now, he’ll say things like, ‘are they going to let me back?’”