What Happens When Even the 'Best' Neighborhood School Treats Its Students With Disabilities Horribly?

Mar 16, 2018 12:00:00 AM


The New York Post recently profiled Wesley Clark, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights.  The article describes a “supposedly progressive Brooklyn Heights public school that talks a good game about inclusion but is purposely neglecting their child to try to get him to leave.” Could this be true? Bewildered, I gave Wesley’s mom, Kim Williams Clark, a call. After all, federal law requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” and for Wesley that environment is his neighborhood school. Here is an edited version of our conversation. What were the first obstacles you faced in your efforts to secure an inclusive education for Wesley? Early on, we lived in New York City. When Wesley was just shy of 1 year old my ex-husband, Lee Wesley Clark, Esq., and I enrolled him in a daycare center. Wesley was in the infant room with typically developing babies. One day I got a call from a daycare staffer, who told me that after dropping off Wesley to return earlier than usual and “go straight to the basement.” The basement? [pullquote]When I went downstairs, there was Wesley, sitting alone with a receptionist, totally isolated from the other children.[/pullquote] It was horrible. As a lawyer, you want to sue. As a parent, you want to cry. It was at that moment our lives were forever changed. When I looked at Wesley, I saw a loving child who, with supports, could achieve great things. But others' perceptions were vastly different. What did you do? Eventually, we moved to New Jersey and found a daycare that treated Wesley like they treated “every other child.” Wesley just flourished. He started to read and write. After aging out of that program Wesley attended our local public school in Montclair where he was placed in general education classroom with full inclusive supports. He excelled academically and socially. And so Wesley had appropriate services that allowed him to be educated with his typical peers. You are so committed to integrated classrooms that you even founded a nonprofit to advocate for inclusive practices, right? Yes, we hope to change the way that Wesley and children with disabilities are treated, so they will be able to obtain the inclusive services that they are entitled to. In order to make this happen I started Inclusion Works, which has partnered with a variety of community organizations in New Jersey, New York and abroad. Why did you leave Montclair? We decided to go back to our Brooklyn roots. Wesley was 8 years old and the timing seemed right. We specifically chose Brooklyn Heights because the neighborhood school there, PS 8, has a program called  Integrated Collaborative Teaching that uses a model of team teaching with a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Everything seemed fine. When we enrolled, we turned over Wesley’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) from Montclair because, by law, PS 8 has to provide comparable services until implementation of a new IEP. And that’s when things went bad. What went wrong? We’ve been waiting over one year for an IEP which is generally completed within 60 days from enrollment. But Wesley hasn’t received any academic support. The school has refused to implement the services. Wesley is non-verbal but communicates with an augmentative communication device and through sign language. Yet his device is not used properly during the school day and the school has neglected to schedule training for the support team. Other crucial therapies were excessively delayed. It’s so disappointing that in 2018 some folks are intolerant of children with disabilities. These children didn’t choose the disability; the disability chose them. As parents, it’s a constant struggle to obtain services. What is most egregious for us is that the services we’re asking PS 8 and the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to provide for Wesley are already in his IEP and the DOE’s Comparable Service Plan. Yet the school is refusing to give them to us. That’s illegal! What prompted you to bring Wesley’s story to the media? We need help and we believe that there are other parents who may have similar experiences. We also would like to encourage people to join us in our fight for Wesley! We would like school districts to be more sensitive to the needs of children with disabilities. In this instance, Wesley needs an aide to manage his needs. She was wonderful but the principal, for “budgetary reasons,” assigned a new aide. One day I went to pick up Wesley from the after-school program and I was stopped by a classmate who told me that Wesley seemed very sad. Then [pullquote]the children told me that they saw Wesley’s aide dragging him up several flights of stairs while he was squealing in pain.[/pullquote] As a result of Wesley’s Down Syndrome, he has a heart condition with instructions for elevator use since he gets winded. And now we have this aide who is actually assaulting him. Then why do you still want Wesley to remain at PS 8? And why do you think that the school is trying to get you to push him out and place him in a more restrictive setting? PS 8 is the highest rated district school and the only inclusive school, right in our Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. There’s a sign at the school that says there’s “No Place for Hate.” I don’t know if the school realizes that by discriminating against a child with a disability they are creating a place for hate. We want to change this. I still want Wesley there. He has a wonderful cohort of children and parents around him who are loving and protective. We have been asked by school district officials to consider transferring Wesley. We suggested that the leadership transfer to another school—because our child is entitled to a public education! While the school has access to the academic supports needed for Wesley to excel, they are resistant to providing them. We’re so tired of being pushed around. We’re tired of being bullied. The easiest thing for me would be to say, “I quit.” But I can’t quit on Wesley, this sweet and wonderful child. He doesn’t deserve this. [pullquote]As long as I have breath I will fight for his right to be included because I see how he lights up when he’s around his friends.[/pullquote] They don’t have the right to take away his light! Our goal is to ensure that Wesley receives his services in an inclusive environment. We are sharing our story because we know that other parents may be suffering in silence. If you are out there, we stand with you! To the educators, we ask you to stand with us in our struggle toward equity and access to a quality inclusive education for youth of all abilities.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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