Monday, April 10, 2017

Every Voice Matters: a statement to the school board

I've felt a purpose and a drive in my life that feels so much bigger than me. When I stop and start to process I think- WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! But I don't think I'm supposed to think about it that hard. I think I'm just supposed to listen to God's nudges and work hard with truth, love and strength as my guide.

Let me explain, let's go back to the beginning of the year. I was at a budget meeting for our local school district, Fresno Unified School District. Fresno Unified has received a $225 million dollar bond- it's called Measure X. The whole community is welcome and invited to these meetings to give input on what they would like to see done with the money, but I don't usually see any other parents there. When I talk about attending something like this, parents usually say, "Well, I didn't know about it." Here's the deal- you have to read the weekly letter sent home, and listen to the sometimes numerous voicemails the school sends out. They usually inform us of everything. The twice a month school Board meetings are also open to the public. Attending those meetings has been eye opening to me. It's shown me that Special Education will not get the attention it needs unless it is asked for. It's empowering and scary all at once.

While at the budget meeting, I brought up the fact that my son's classroom is a portable unit approximately 100 yards away from the actual school. This is something that I have been talking about for over a year, and something the previous bond measure was supposed to fix, but never did. At this meeting, my request was that some of the $225 million of the facilities bond measure be used to replace these classrooms. And as I spoke and shared these words, my voice cracked as I thought about the mental and social implications of segregating kids with special needs. It's so hard to be a kid in ways us grown ups barely remember. We just want to fit it. We don't want to stand out for the wrong reasons. We don't need circumstances that makes life harder. I thought about how I would feel as a general education student- seeing kids that act different being kept far away from school. I would be a little scared of these kids. I would assume they NEEDED to be kept separate. Maybe they are bad? Maybe what they have is catching. Maybe it's better for them to be separate. It's obvious we are not the same.

I couldn't be silent anymore, but I was scared to speak up. A few days later I was driving and fully absorbing all the feelings I had about this classroom separation. I started to sob. "I've got to fix this" was all I could think. HOW?! I asked me. It's a big district and you are one person. It doesn't matter- I told me. Stop thinking about the outcome and start thinking about simply doing SOMETHING. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work. It doesn't matter if no one listens. It just matters that you DO SOMETHING when you see something that isn't right. Don't you want to teach your children to live with integrity because it's the right thing to do? Not to live with integrity -ONLY if it is received in the way you want it to by others?

So I began to draft a statement to make at the next School Board meeting which was occurring a couple of days later. There is a portion of every meeting where any member of the public can speak for three minutes. I planned my words with the precision of a surgeon. Here are the words I shared. Some of the names/details are being left out for privacy.


Good evening President, Members of the board, and Superintendent: 

My name is Chrissy Kelly, and I'm the proud mother to my seven year old son Greyson. Greyson attends an autism 1st-3rd classroom with seven other students who require individualized curriculum. Autism is a neurological disorder that affects brain development. Children with this disorder have varying degrees of difficulty with communication, behavior and socialization.

I'm here to request the equal treatment of students in Special Education within Fresno Unified. We are not always included in school events. There is significant work that needs to be done to implement meaningful inclusion with fidelity. Most disturbing is my son's physical classroom is an old portable unit, approximately 100 yards away from the school. There are no general education students that attend school all day in these portables.

I'm here to bring this matter to your attention. The segregation of children with special needs is a violation of IDEA- The Individuals with disabilities education act, a federal law that ensures equal treatment for all students with disabilities.

Greyson's classroom is cramped and lacks much natural light. The floor is soft in some areas and unstable. When it rains, the students with autism cannot travel to the cafeteria for lunch. The actual school is approximately a football field away, which is too far when the walkway is filled with puddles. On these days, the students remain in the portable units all day. Having special needs is already an isolating condition, and having autism makes socializing difficult for these students. These children do not need physical segregation added to their struggle.

I urge Fresno Unified to fast track construction to create new and appropriate facilities for these deserving children. These students with autism are educated in these segregated portables from preK to 3rd grade. That is a total of 5-6 years. This is simply not acceptable, and is a violation of federal law and equal protection. Furthermore, please be aware that moving the children to an alternate site will traumatize them, as an autism diagnosis demands consistency and routine.

I understand the use of these portable units was born out of necessity several years ago. But now it's time for change. While these children have spent six hours a day in a portable classroom, three multi million dollar swimming pools have been built by this school district. I am not asking for extras. I'm asking for basic facilities that serve the most fundamental needs of these children. 

This Board consists of senior members with institutional knowledge of the system, and more recently elected members who collectively have the opportunity to change the daily lives and educational direction of these deserving children. 

I implore you on behalf of my son Greyson, who has taught ME far more than I could ever teach him, and for all the other children with autism who don't have the ability to advocate for themselves. Please, do the right thing and construct appropriate classrooms for these amazing kids. 

I was scared, but I did it anyway. And really, is there any other way to live? I have a voice that I cannot take for granted because my sons' were not given that same voice. I speak for them, and for anyone that needs it. I've yet to get a concrete answer from the District on how this is going to be fixed, but I haven't let them forget about these kids. I will not give up. 

The truth is, Special Education needs the same collective movement given to other Civil Rights issues, and I must do my part. Sure, I can make sure my boys are taken care of. I can do what I can to make sure they are treated fairly and given an appropriate education, but if the rest of the Special Needs community isn't taken care of, I'm not really helping the cause as a whole, and then I'm actually not helping my boys. 

Let this be a reminder, change is slow, but your voice matters. 

Love,
Chrissy

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing an update on your life with us. Kudos to you for doing something scary and important regardless of the outcome!

    This--"Stop thinking about the outcome and start thinking about simply doing SOMETHING. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work. It doesn't matter if no one listens. It just matters that you DO SOMETHING when you see something that isn't right."--is a truth I need to remind myself of. (I actually wrote a blog post this weekend about how I'm trying to shift my focus from judging the end results to doing my best in this moment.)

    --Jennifer

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  2. You're awesome. great job!!

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  3. Well done - that took courage. Speaking out is hard and so important. I hope and pray that steps are taken to improve the situation.

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  4. Good for you! I have the same frustration with parents for some reason not staying informed or speaking up. I encourage you to go back to the meeting and simply today yourself and bring more parents... Until they respond. If you haven't heard back by the third meeting let your local news station know you will be sharing for the third time. Unfortunately in our district until bigger voices become involved somehow nothing happens.

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  5. Kudos to you for facing them on behalf of your son and all the other special needs kids in those portables. We need more parents like you!

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  6. Let it be known that the school you speak of is a wonderful place..I have nothing but respect for the Administration and Staff..the school does what it can to make everyone feel like they belong.

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    1. It may be a great school, but if it is segregating kids and keeping them a football away from the building & services provided in the school building, it is not making that group of students feel like they belong. Least restrictive environment is what should happen. Being in an old portable classroom where they can't safely get to the building in poor weather makes it a pretty restrictive environment!

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    2. There are so many wonderful people that work for the school and some wonderful people that work in admin too. However, there is so much work that has to be done for the entire district in terms of Special Education and all related services. The truth is- no one can make Special Education students and parents, and even the Special Education Teachers feel like they belong, because we don't belong. In order to make people feel like they belong you need more than a mission statement saying as much, you need to treat people like they belong.

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