Yesterday, at the Delaware Department of Education, a public hearing was held for Academy of Dover, a charter school in Dover now under formal review. The only members of the public to show up were a Miss Sabine Neal and myself. Representing the school were Principal Cheri Marshall, Board member Nancy Wagner, and a member of the administrative staff. The purpose of this public hearing was for any member of the public to give comment about Academy of Dover. Neal gave public comment, and what she said is disturbing, but necessary for parents and members of the community to know. Miss Neal gave me permission to tell this story, and it is very similar to what so many parents in Delaware have gone through at the hands of our schools.
Hi, my name is Sabine Neal. I’m a parent at Academy of Dover. My two children, two of my children go there. I’m here today, sorry I’m kind of nervous. I’m here today to stand up for my son. He was the child that was abused at the Academy of Dover. He is a six-year old kindergarten special needs student who I asked for an evaluation for in August from the school. I did not receive any evaluations until November, and I was not notified he was going to be evaluated. I found out because he came home nervous. I submitted an Autism diagnosis, I submitted an ADHD diagnosis. I was told they could not do anything with the ADHD diagnosis until he had been in the school six months. The Autism diagnosis, I was told since he was only two and a half, it was too old and I needed a new one. They knew he had issues, I asked for help, and problems escalated throughout the year. He’s autistic, he doesn’t deal well with change. Issues occurred and arose throughout the year. He’s been suspended multiple times, but he’s not a bad child. He is six. I tried everything with the school. I set up to get him reevaluated. Getting into a neurologist takes a lot of time. I went to a neurologist, my insurance dropped that neurologist, so I had to go to Delaware Autism Program as the school suggested. I got him re-diagnosed again, again, he’s not eligible. I never had a meeting, they never said anything. I was just told by the Behavior Interventionist he is not eligible.
There is obviously something going on if my child has problems in school. And the day that his teacher kicked him in the leg and bruised him, that was when it all culminated. She was frustrated, I have no doubt in my mind. But the school should have done something prior to that, because my child should not have been abused. I was called at 12:30 to come to the school to speak to the principal and a couple other people. I know the behavior interventionist, but I don’t know what the other guy’s position is. And they told me what happened, they said, I asked what the punishment was for her. They said she’s already left but they can’t discuss, she’s been dealt with properly. When I went, he remained in the school for the rest of the day. When I went to pick him up at 3:00, she, the teacher, was coming out of the building at 3:00. Later in the week she attended the staff-teacher appreciation dinner. What school appreciates a teacher who abuses somebody and is seen on camera? She admitted to doing it. The school never called the police or anything. I called DFS who then said it wasn’t a family matter so they have to report it to the police.
Now, he’s in Kindergarten, and that sets up a life-long issue. If he has problems when he is that little do you think he would want to continue to school for the rest of your life? No. That’s horrible. He should have never gone through that. There’s no responsibility, nobody’s taking responsibility for it. They’re just saying “Oh, you know, we suggest that she be fired.” But that wasn’t even it. She only got suspended for a week. I doubt that they wanted to actually fire her. But I’m just here to let you know that I’m standing up for my son and every other child with special needs that is not being serviced that they deserve. Thank you.
At this point, the Head of School, Cheri Marshall, states she wants to speak.
I’m Cheri Marshall, I’m the Head of School. I just wanted to touch on what Miss Neal said. I don’t know if I can do a rebuttal, but uhm, we are aware that she has filed a formal complaint with the Department of Education and it is being investigated, we are working on our response. I took over this position in the beginning of February. At that time, it was brought to my attention all the concerns that we had for this student. The school has proper documentation and evidence that we have followed the law accordingly. He was evaluated, he did not qualify for an IEP. He is on a 504 for transition into the building. And the only Autism documentation that we have was from, uhm, uhm, I believe the date is April the 2nd, or March the 2nd, March or April, at that was from the, uhm, Autism Spectrum Support Group. Other than that, a psychologist has evaluated him. He did not qualify for an IEP. We are following the 504. That is only for transition into the building. Now my staff, my behavior interventionist, my class of teachers, have gone above and beyond to help this child, to help and work with mom. We have done what we can to help. This child has, several times, caused harm to other students and to our staff, and there was some times he was suspended because there is no documentation stating that he…this is happening because of his behavior. He has a 504 transition. So, I just wanted to put it out there that Academy of Dover has done what they need to do to provide, and gone above and beyond, to help the student, to help mom, and we will continue to do what we need to do to help mom and to help the student because education is our number one priority. Thank you.
Now where this gets REAL sticky is Marshall’s claim that she took on the position of Head of School at Academy of Dover in February, 2015 and wasn’t aware of the situation with this student prior to that. After former Head of School Noel Rodriguez supposedly resigned, she served as the acting interim Head of School until an official replacement could be found. On August 21st, 2014, Noel Rodriguez was present at the board meeting and all seemed well. At a September 5th emergency board meeting, Rodriguez was not present and the board voted unanimously (with an abstention by board member Nancy Wagner) over an employee issue. For the next regular board meeting on September 18th, Dr. John Leone was listed as interim principal with Marshall as assistant principal. This went on until the March 19th board meeting where their board minutes show Marshall listed as Principal, so her statement about her new role in February 2015 sounds accurate. However, according to Sabine Neal, Marshall was on the 504/IEP team and took the notes for those meetings last fall. So for her to allude that she became aware of Neal’s son in February is ludicrous at best. Typically, an assistant principal is the one to handle discipline issues and would thus handle suspensions.
To further complicate the issue, Marshall did not rebut several of Neal’s comments. If what Neal said is correct about a decision being told to her about special education services, without the collaboration of the full 504 or IEP team, then this is very much a violation of both Delaware and Federal law. For Delaware, this is listed in Title 14:
6.0 Determination of Eligibility
6.1 General: Upon completion of the administration of assessments and other evaluation measures, a group of qualified professionals and the parent of the child shall determine whether the child is a child with a disability, as defined in 14 DE Admin. Code 922.3.0, in accordance with 6.2 and the educational needs of the child; and the public agency shall provide a copy of the evaluation report and the documentation of determination of eligibility at no cost to the parent. The evaluation report shall document the IEP team’s discussion of the eligibility determination including, where appropriate, the additional requirements for students with a learning disability.
In terms of a specific diagnosis of autism, Delaware clearly defines the criteria for an autism diagnosis in Title 14:
6.6 Eligibility Criteria for Autism. The educational classification of autism encompasses the clinical condition of Autistic Disorder, as well as other typically less severe Pervasive Developmental Disorders, (i.e., Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified). These conditions share important features, and together, comprise the Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Students with educational classifications of autism may have ASD of differing severity as a function of the number and pattern of features defined in the eligibility criteria listed below.
6.6.1 In order for the IEP team to determine eligibility for special education services under the Autism category, the following is required:
188.8.131.52 All students with an educational classification of autism demonstrate a significant, qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction, as manifested by deficits in at least two of the following:
184.108.40.206.1 Use of multiple nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interactions;
220.127.116.11.2 Development of peer relationships;
18.104.22.168.3 Spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people, including parent(s) and caregivers; or
22.214.171.124.4 Social or emotional reciprocity.
126.96.36.199 All students with an educational classification of autism also demonstrate at least one feature from either 188.8.131.52.1 or 184.108.40.206.2.
220.127.116.11.1 A qualitative impairment in communication, as manifested by:
18.104.22.168.1.1 A lack of, or delay in, spoken language and failure to compensate through gesture;
22.214.171.124.1.2 Relative failure to initiate or sustain a conversation with others;
126.96.36.199.1.3 Stereotyped, idiosyncratic, or repetitive speech; or
188.8.131.52.1.4 A lack of varied, spontaneous make believe play or social imitative play.
184.108.40.206.2 Restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, as manifested by:
220.127.116.11.2.1 Encompassing preoccupation or circumscribed and restricted patterns of interest;
18.104.22.168.2.2 Apparently compulsive adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines and rituals;
22.214.171.124.2.3 Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms; or
126.96.36.199.2.4 Persistent preoccupation with parts and sensory qualities of objects.
188.8.131.52 All students with an educational classification of autism have impairments that:
184.108.40.206.1 Are inconsistent with the student’s overall developmental and functional level; and
220.127.116.11.2 Result in an educationally significant impairment in important areas of functioning; and
18.104.22.168.3 Are a part of a clear pattern of behavior that is consistently manifested across a variety of people, tasks and settings, and that persists across a significant period of time; and
22.214.171.124.4 Are not primarily accounted for by an emotional disorder.
I am not an attorney, so I cannot say if Academy of Dover violated the law with 100% certainty. In my opinion, this child should have easily qualified for an IEP with no questions. To give him a 504 plan for “transition into the building” is not giving a child the amount of services they need, especially with an Autism and ADHD diagnosis. The school clearly saw issues with this child’s behavior, which certainly affected his educational outcome if he was suspended repeatedly. If he was on a 504 plan, the school should have conducted a manifestation determination hearing to determine if the behavior was a result of the child’s disability. If it was so determined, by the FULL 504 team, a Functional Behavioral Analysis would be done by the school psychologist and then a Behavior Intervention Plan would need to be developed. I have seen many 504 plans, but I have never heard of one so limited in scope with the diagnoses this student has.
As for the teacher, I have to agree with Miss Neal. If this teacher was allowed to participate in a staff-teacher appreciation dinner two days after the incident (their website indicates this dinner was held May 7th at Mapledale Country Club in Dover, DE), this is extreme poor taste on the school’s part. Especially since the incident was on camera and the teacher confessed. The fact the school did not follow proper protocol for abuse of a child is very disturbing.
After the public hearing for Academy of Dover yesterday, I walked out with Neal, and she was approached by a board member who stated to her she wasn’t familiar with the teacher. Sources revealed to me this very same board member went to the DOE to get an okay for the teacher to work on contingency until she finished her degree requirements, and the request was granted by the Delaware State Board of Education.
During the meeting, I made public comment about an article I wrote last fall. I described how several people associated with the school informed me Rodriguez was terminated, so I wrote an article on this. Afterwards, I contacted the school for clarification, and was told by Marshall “our attorneys are looking into your blog” and that Rodriguez resigned. At the Charter School Accountability Committee meeting last week, Wagner publicly stated, and this is in the official report released by the Delaware Charter School Office two days ago, “The State Auditor’s Office was at the school for a week. The Board decided to remove Mr. Rodriguez immediately and remove all cell phone and credit card access. Mr. Boynton (board president) met with Mr. Rodriguez.” At the public hearing, in response to my comment, Wagner publicly stated he was not removed, physically or otherwise, and he resigned. She also said that she never said his name. Okay, last August, Noel Rodriguez was the Head of School at Academy of Dover. He was gone weeks later. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know who you are talking about here. Did the Board vote that he had to resign? Whatever big emergency decision was made on September 5th, Wagner declined to vote. How soon can we get legislation that any principal or higher authority associated with education, upon the event of termination, has to have this publicly known? Stating that someone “resigned” in the face of known accusations is a very weak response to a public issue.
I just don’t understand why this school lies in public when they don’t have to.
In the meantime, Sabine Neal continues to fight for her son and his rights, allowed to him under Federal and state law. I have to commend Neal. She told me she had never spoken in public like that before, but without a script, delivered an excellent summation of the events with her son. What the Academy of Dover and the Delaware DOE do not realize is this: with their lack of oversight and inability to make sure this student’s rights weren’t violated, they have created another parent who is taking up the cause of promoting rights for special needs children and students with disabilities. I welcome Sabine Neal to the club. It’s a club no parent ever wants to be a part of, but we never quit either. These are long battles, but I saw the fight in her eyes. Like so many other parents before her, and the many who will come after, Neal is ready to do whatever it takes to make sure her son, as well as all special needs children, get the supports and services they need. It is a calling that many parents don’t understand, but we will stand for our children when no one else will. This is how warriors are born.