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Two citizens spoke to the Marion County Board of Education at the end of its July 8 meeting, and they expressed contrary views about the district's leadership.
Amanda Beard concluded her remarks by calling for Superintendent Taylora Schlosser and the school board members to resign, while Barney Tharp defended Schlosser and the school board for recent steps they have taken.
After each of them spoke, Board Member Butch Cecil thanked them for taking the time to go through the process to get on the agenda.
Beard spoke first, saying it wasn't easy to get on the agenda.
She went on to say that she has two children in the school system, one of whom has Asperger's Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder.
"I'm here tonight to talk about his special education needs that have not been met," Beard said.
She said she contacted the previous special education director before the 2013-14 school year started, and she was told to be more optimistic.
Beard explained that her son is considered high-functioning. He makes good grades and passes the tests that are used by the state to measure students' progress.
"He was treated like a juvenile delinquent this year. We had many, many meetings," she said.
Beard said she tried to be an advocate for her son and to be supportive of his teachers, but she did not feel they were there to support her son. She said she asked many times for a place where her son could go when he is experiencing sensory difficulties.
"The place was a table with a sheet over it, and he's supposed to crawl under there and hide, more or less," Beard said.
As an alternative, her son often went to the office, and Beard was called to come to the school many times.
She said she asked for a sensory room, but she was told it would cost $20,000.
Individuals with autism can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli that occur in everyday situations. A sensory room or area can provide a place for those individuals to calm themselves down.
Beard said she might try to raise money for the room, adding that her son is not the only person who would benefit. She noted that one in 64 children in the United States are diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
"Most of those children have sensory issues," Beard said.
She added that she knows three children who will be coming to St. Charles Middle School in the next few years who would benefit from a sensory room.
"I never asked for a $20,000 room. I asked for a sensory room ... but I was totally shot down," Beard said.
She also requested a report with a breakdown of how much money the district receives for students with special needs and how that money is used.
And she addressed Board Member Mike Cecil directly, saying she disagreed with his statement that only one parent had contacted him about academic concerns. Beard said she and many other parents spoke to him about their children's educational needs.
Beard also said that neither Cecil nor Board Chairman DeLane Pinkston took any notes during a public forum Cecil hosted June 9 at Loretto City Hall. She continued to say that the drama within the district is affecting students as well.
"If you have teachers that are worried about losing their jobs or teachers that are afraid to ask for help with children as my child, they are not going to be able to really deal with those children like they should," Beard said.
She concluded her remarks by saying everyone agrees that the district could use more stability. However, she did not believe the current school board has the ability to lead and was hindering education.
As a member of TEAM Marion County, she asked Superintendent Schlosser and the board members to resign.
"Please take the high road for the sake of our children in our district," Beard said.
According to a letter to the editor in last week’s edition, TEAM Marion County stands for The Education Advancement Movement for Marion County. In addition to calling for Schlosser and school board members to resign, Dennis Hagan wrote in that letter that the organization wants the district to get back in the top 20 percent of Kentucky school districts.
Beard added that she appreciates comments earlier in the meeting by Traci Sharpe, the district's new exceptional child education director (see related story). Beard said she has fought with the school system, and she doesn't think the school board members understand what parents of children with special needs go through.
Several people applauded when Beard finished speaking.
Sharpe took a moment to address some of Beard's concerns. Sharpe said, with time, each school will have the equipment to meet students' sensory needs.
"You're not going to have to worry about fighting for that. It's going to happen," Sharpe said.
She added that she has been meeting with principals, and they and Schlosser are on board. It's just a matter of prioritizing and getting things done, according to Sharpe.
She offered a quick overview of how special education is funded. The district receives funding from the federal government, which is funneled through the Kentucky Department of Education and based on the district's child count on Dec. 1.
The district also receives Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funding. Each public school district receives a base amount of funding for students, but that formula is adjusted to provide additional funding for students with special needs.
Sharpe said the district spends more than that on special education needs. Regardless, her goal is for the district to be efficient and effective with how that money is spent.
She continued to tell Beard that parent advocates like her are the greatest asset the district has to meet a student's needs.
"You know your child the best because you're the parent," Sharpe said.
Pinkston also responded to Beard.
"We were taking notes, and I told you we were taking mental notes," he said.
Pinkston said they knew there were problems in special education, and the district has taken action to make changes.
"Action is better than writing something down on paper," he said.
Beard said she felt it was an insult to the intelligence of the parents who attended that meeting in Loretto that he didn't write down anything during the meeting.
"It's not rocket science to know there is a problem and it needed to be addressed," Pinkston said.
When Barney Tharp spoke, he turned toward the audience.
"With all the controversy concerning the Marion County Public Schools, my head and also my heart wouldn't allow me to remain silent any longer," he said.
Tharp shared a comment he had originally posted on the Enterprise's website. In it, he asked people to imagine the courage an autistic child needs just to go to school. He also asked them to imagine that child being left alone in a room with the door closed during a fire alarm.
"Just imagine the fear that that student must have felt at that moment," Tharp said.
He then asked people to imagine that someone responsible for what occurred to later claim to be a victim.
"Just know these special needs students may be silent, but they certainly are not stupid. They deserve our support. They deserve our respect," Tharp said.
He continued to say that his grandson is a Marion County High School student who has autism. Tharp said his daughter (Betty Higdon) served as a special education teacher in the district until she died of cancer in 2010.
He said his grandson had challenging but rewarding experiences in elementary and middle school, where the instructors were trained and knew how to deal with students with autism. Tharp said sensory breaks are essential for these students.
"These breaks allow the child to step away from the overpowering tasks at hand and thus avoiding most major meltdowns of emotions," he said.
He added that autistic children don't lie and are almost honest to a fault. He also said he knew his grandson would have greater challenges in high school.
As a sophomore, staff changes were made, and according to Tharp, they were "grossly undertrained."
"Many were unqualified to nurture, to develop and to assist the special needs students," Tharp said.
He continued to say that this occurred under the leadership of former Superintendent Chuck Hamilton and former MCHS Principal Stacey Hall.
Tharp said his grandson was assigned an uncaring aid during this time. In February of 2013, his grandson was trying to complete a computer class assignment when the aid interfered with his work, according to Tharp.
When his grandson tried to leave the classroom, he was sent to the office, Tharp said.
"While he was there, the school began their fire alarm drill. He was left over 15 minutes, sitting in that room with the lights turned off, with the door closed," Tharp said.
He added that his grandson did not know what was happening, but he did know the alarm meant danger.
"Needless to say, he was terrified by the time those assigned to his well-being returned to the room," Tharp said.
According to Tharp, his grandson was told he would be Tasered if he did not calm down. As his grandson's fears increased, three men wrestled him to the floor, Tharp said, adding that that is not something that anyone should do to an autistic child in the middle of a meltdown unless he or she is in danger of hurting someone.
Tharp said Hall was responsible for the staff members who were involved in this incident and he accused Hall of personally participating.
"Three grown men held my grandson down while he cried, while he trembled and while he begged for help," Tharp said.
He added that his grandson lost his love for school after that incident.
Tharp also said he was “blown away” when Hall claimed to be a victim in the lawsuit that is currently pending against the Marion County Public School System.
Hall is among a group of parents who filed a civil lawsuit June 12 in Marion Circuit Court against special education teacher Holly Buckman, Superintendent Schlosser, Marion County High School Principal Michael Abell, Lebanon Middle School Principal Christina McRay (former assistant principal at MCHS), former Special Education Director Deborah Spalding, former Special Education and Pre-School Director Amber Ervin, the Marion County Public School District and the Marion County Board of Education.
Tharp said he spoke up to share his family's experience and to let others know that it occurred under Hall and Hamilton's watch. He added that Hamilton advised them to keep the incident to themselves because Marion County did not need a "Bardstown incident" (a reference to a lawsuit pending in that district).
"Superintendent Taylora Schlosser inherited quite a mess in our flawed educational system,” Tharp said. “She inherited a good ol' boys club in which if you're in the clique you can do no wrong, and if you're not in the clique, then you're browbeat and you're bullied.”
He said he applauded Schlosser for taking unpopular but necessary steps to turn attention back toward quality education.
"The recent removal and replacement of certain school personnel were both positive and much needed steps in refocusing the spotlight on our future, our children," Tharp said.
He said many reasons factor into personnel decisions, but the steps leading to those decisions must be documented. While they may not be able to share that information due to privacy laws, Tharp said they do have to share that information with the proper authorities.
He continued to say that he understands the frustrations many parents are feeling, but he added that his grandson has received welcome care under Schlosser and Principal Abell. Tharp also praised Montrelle Irvin for everything he has done to support his grandson.
"What an awesome experience it is to see my grandson smile again and hear him say, 'I love to go to school,'" Tharp said.
He concluded by saying he prays that the community will refocus on children's educational needs.
"We must get past this blame game in which there will be no winners,” Tharp said. “We'll all lose with this emotional mayhem.”
He said parents of autistic children do not need to limit their education opportunities. He urged educators to prepare themselves and their facilities as more special needs children are coming.
"We need to push forward together and get the job done," Tharp said. "Our children deserve no less than our best efforts. We can do this Marion County. We must. Enough already."
More applause followed Tharp's remarks.
Hall was not present at the July 8 meeting, but he disputed Tharp’s description of what took place.
“His facts are a little bit misleading,” Hall said.
Hall said that five adults were present during the incident. He acknowledged that people did put hands on Tharp’s grandson, but Hall denied that he was manhandled.
According to Hall, people who are trained know not to manhandle an autistic child. Instead, he said Tharp’s grandson was restrained out of concern that he could be a danger to himself or others.
Hall added that he was disappointed that the board allowed a public discussion of personnel matters, when they would not allow personnel matters to be discussed at a prior meeting.
The Enterprise was not able to reach Hamilton for a comment.