published Friday, November 30th, 2012

Parents claim widespread special ed problems in Hamilton County schools

Bella Costerisan, 9, left, and Jack Brady French, 2, look up to their mother Christa French as she tears voicing concerns with the education of her special needs child in the county school system during the Hamilton County Commission meeting Thursday morning.
Bella Costerisan, 9, left, and Jack Brady French, 2, look up to their mother Christa French as she tears voicing concerns with the education of her special needs child in the county school system during the Hamilton County Commission meeting Thursday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.

D.R. Fraley didn't know where else to turn.

So for the third week in a row, he stood before the Hamilton County Commission looking for answers.

Fraley said he's gotten nowhere with officials at East Lake Academy or the central office as he has lodged questions about the education of his special-needs daughter, who has multiple diagnoses including autism and scoliosis. He wants to know why her teacher was suddenly removed this month and why her learning environment drastically changed.

Since first telling his story, Fraley said more parents of special-needs students have come forward. Some of them also have stepped to the podium to publicly address the commission.

Though many gave glowing reviews of their children's special education teachers, the small group of parents claims there is a range of problems within the school system, including widespread communication issues, mistreatment of special education students and inattentive or overly aggressive teachers and aides.

On Thursday, Fraley read a letter from a woman who, like him, had pulled her daughter from school out of fear for her safety.

"This is just one letter, gentlemen. And I've got about 30," Fraley said. "And I don't think the story ends there."

County school officials say they are providing safe, appropriate care and education to the thousands of students who receive special education services. But the complaints have one county commissioner calling for a third-party review of the special education program.

Commissioner Tim Boyd said he recently listened to stories from six sets of parents for more than four hours. The parents came from several different schools across the county. Some didn't even know each other. But all had experienced problems with special education services, Boyd said.

Some of the worst complaints claim that special education students were locked away in dark bathrooms or forced to sit in urine-soaked clothes. And families say they're not being informed of changes to their child's education -- even when they were being bused to new schools.

"Having that many schools put out there with multiple sets of parents just raises a huge red flag for me," Boyd said. "It's time for these people's concerns to be heard because these are the most vulnerable children in the school system."

Boyd's daughter worked in the same classroom where Fraley's daughter attended school. The commissioner said she requested a transfer and has since moved to a new school. But his involvement with the concerned parents isn't based on his daughter's involvement, he said.

"This is involving multiple schools," he said.

Fraley's issues likely won't make it in front of the school board, because they center around a personnel decision made at central office. And school board Chairman Mike Evatt said the board doesn't publicly discuss such matters.

"I have not heard of any complaints systemwide," he said. "That particular complaint at East Lake revolves around a personnel issue. And personnel issues are confidential."

Special Education Director Margaret Abernathy said she wasn't involved in the personnel decisions at East Lake, but had met with Fraley. She said she's always willing to hear concerns from parents.

Abernathy said she wasn't aware that multiple parents had been addressing the commission with their issues and hadn't received any complaints of widespread special education problems.

Special education services are still being delivered at East Lake and all schools by the appropriate certified, licensed staff members, she said.

"Services have not stopped to the students," Abernathy said.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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