I recently learned that some officials in the Fox C-6 district are complaining about reporters showing up. Fox is a public school district accused of unethical practices, and violating law. People have every right to be concerned and obviously questions will be raised. Reporters who care about their duties as members of a free press will be nosing around. But Fox officials don't seem to grasp the concept of accountability.
I have worked productively with a number of school districts. I began trying to work with the Fox C-6 district several years back. Some of this work involved requests for basic security and accessibility measures. Some of the requests I made were resolved, like getting a fence put up at Hodge Elementary and other minor adjustments. But I often received generic excuses, usually about a matter of “cost”. Though my dealings with district officials were not what I would consider professional on their part, nothing compared to the behavior I witnessed when it came to the matter of the so called “special education schedules".
I became aware of the different schedules the Fox district operates for students with disabilities by observing it firsthand. Children were leaving about 40 minutes earlier than everyone else at one particular school. Every day, as their peers looked on, they were ushered out of whatever classroom activity was taking place. Why? It did not feel right and anyone with eyes could see it was not fair.
The saddest example was one child who would sit alone in “after care” forty minutes before actual class dismissal time. Why was this child already in aftercare? These early release schedules result in fewer minutes of classroom instruction time for students with disabilities, relative to all the other children. When different buses are used, it’s not surprising (but still unacceptable) that the hours children are in school are not the same. But all students with disabilities were automatically on this schedule even if transportation was not provided by a special bus. I also had to ask if the hours themselves were different, shouldn’t the number of hours all children receive be equal?
Even a small difference, like half an hour per day adds up to a significant loss over the course of the year. It’s telling that, where such discrepancies exist, it’s always the most vulnerable students who happen to be shortchanged, never the sports programs (see the previous article on the new stadium). What’s really sad about this is that it’s the “special ed” students who most need every minute of instruction they can get. Even slight improvements for these students can mean the difference between a “special ed” student who grows up to be relatively independent and one who has lifelong needs at great cost. I think of Dr. Temple Grandin and what her life could be like if she had accessed significantly less education. It's probable that none of us would know her name.
Initially, I was only asking questions about all of this. Simply asking questions resulted in very ugly behavior, including blatant dishonesty, by district officials. I had to investigate. After consulting with seasoned legal professionals and fellow advocates, I learned that this practice was a violation of both Missouri state and federal law. Similar cases had been filed and won in Missouri, and several other states. Under the law, any difference in the amount of classroom time is illegal. Even five minutes. It's clear discrimination to systemically practice these different schedules and shortened school days. This makes sense because if you think about it, even five minutes a day adds up. But if you think five minutes is acceptable for students to miss, is thirty? Is an hour? The simplest solution is for everything to be equal, and that’s what the law says. Even if you disagree with it, the law is the law.
I tried repeatedly to talk with district officials about this. I met with them personally and showed them pages of case law. I spoke publicly at Board meetings addressing the situation. In official correspondence, district officials often claimed the discrepancy did not exist – which was amazing to me, since anyone could go to the schools and see the situation themselves! Other times, officials claimed that the school district didn’t have enough buses, which doesn’t make sense (since it operates “special ed” buses already and since there was clear precedent on the use of "transportation" as an excuse), and didn’t address the illegality of the district’s actions. It all seemed disingenuous, and the tone even veered on condescension as if this weren’t a serious issue at all. I got the feeling that school district officials did not care that students with disabilities were not fully accessing their educational rights.
The district complained that providing legally-mandated and equal education for its students would cost more money. Of course, this cannot be a defense for illegal and unjust activity. And the district is a huge financial operation, with very high administrative costs relative to other districts its size. Most importantly, by not obeying the law, the district exposes itself to costly legal settlements or worse – which could be far in excess of simply obeying the law and complying with anti-discrimination legislation.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about all of this was that, while the district was busy claiming the situation didn’t exist or refusing to address the illegality, I heard from many parents, district employees, and advocates who were already aware of and disturbed by the situation. Some workers said they were told to "shut up" about it when they asked questions in the past. Most of the parents and district employees said they were terrified of retaliation if they said anything. So, the students continued to lose out and suffer. Everyone seemed to have this attitude of "the heck with the law". One attorney said he would love to file a class-action lawsuit about the matter, but people were too intimidated to sign on.
A pattern seemed to be emerging. The district apparently didn’t take the law seriously in the least and laughed in the face of it. Rather than address real and proven problems, the district had created an atmosphere of bullying and fear.
Finally, the district agreed to discuss the matter in a conference call with leaders from the ICAA who were hopeful of finally getting the matter addressed, or at least starting a meaningful conversation. Instead, the district introduced its lawyer, who was not interested in reasonable and productive dialogue with us. Throughout the conversation, the school district's attorney had an extremely disrespectful tone, and simply denied both the facts and the law itself. Her role seemed to be to do anything to keep the district from addressing the situation, perhaps in the hopes of getting paid more legal fees or gaining notoriety if the ICAA filed suit and went more public with the matter. It was incredibly disheartening, because it was clear to us that the district had adopted an adversarial attitude and refused to listen to those who raised concerns, even if it was about illegal activity.
One can only assume that this lawyer was paid for her time on the taxpayers’ back. The district seemed to think it was a good use of tax payer dollars or simply more convenient to pay its attorneys in an effort to intimidate and to defend itself in court if necessary, rather than to even listen to legitimate concerns raised by the organization.
The ICAA was not going to be bullied, and the determination was made that there was no other option than to file formal complaints, calling for governmental investigations on the district for the inequitable treatment of its students.
The state of Missouri found the district in noncompliance with the law, and it ordered the situation to be fixed. It also didn’t exonerate the district on several other serious counts, which it could not prove in the short time and with the few resources it had. This was reported in local newspapers, and the finding itself is a matter of public record. And yet the untouchable district seems to have chosen to simply ignore the state’s findings.
I suppose this isn’t surprising, given that the entire situation involved the district ignoring state and federal law. The district has demonstrated contempt for the law, as well as for the equal treatment of its own students.
What is the solution? I sought an informal resolution for years, persisting in the wake of dismissive treatment, condescension, anonymous threats, and flat denials of facts. Ultimately, my organization was able to spur a state finding of wrongdoing on the part of the district. And it still didn’t seem to matter.
Don’t we want parents to be concerned for the education of their students? Don’t we teach our children to follow the law and to treat people equally? What message are we sending to our kids, when a school district so blatantly ignores the values it ought to help instill?
I know the issues involved might not be at the top of your own personal list. That doesn’t mean they don’t matter, or that the law should be ignored, or that a school district should be permitted to operate in such a fashion.
This situation couldn’t exist without citizens and taxpayers tolerating it. The press, with rare exceptions, has refused to address these and other problems with the district in any depth, although some smaller, local publications often glowingly report positive news about the district, ignoring even what happens at public board meetings, particularly the public's comments. Perhaps the smaller, local publications don’t want a fight with the school district either. Perhaps the local press believe that readers prefer to read only good news about area schools.
Given the history, I was less than surprised when reporters called me about the most recent complaints regarding the Fox district last month. Some parents and citizens still say they are fearful of retaliation if they speak up, especially to the press. I hope this changes. There are only so many excuses I can tolerate from adults being too fearful to defend the rights of children in our schools.
I attended the January Board of Education meeting. Several people stood up to speak to the board about their dissatisfaction and embarrassment with the district. People actually requested the Board members and administrators resign, citing the lack of public confidence.
The current public outcry is due to some questionable hiring decisions made by the district. I was not surprised. In fact, according to several concerned citizens, this is not even the worst case of questionable hiring or promotions within the district.
Is an audit forthcoming? Will more parents and taxpayers stand up and demand positive change? Will teachers and workers refuse to be intimidated, and unite to advocate for their students?
What special education students miss on some of the "early release" days: With an example of 30 minutes per day of instruction lost by students on the so called special education schedule, this is equal to over 2 hours per week, or one hundred and fifty minutes. 600 minutes (or 6 hours) per month. Over seven thousand minutes per year.