Group wants GRPS special ed director fired

School superintendent supports for director, says problems are being addressed

Barton Deiters -

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) -- A vocal coalition of parents, teachers and the teachers union says that special education administered throughout Kent County by Grand Rapids Public Schools is broken.

They are publicly calling on the district to remove Director of Special Education Laura LaMore.

In dueling press conferences Wednesday -- which seemed a lot like a domestic dispute being aired in public -- the Michigan Education Association (the union that represents teachers) and the superintendents of Grand Rapids Schools and the Kent Intermediate School districts made their case.

The MEA, along with some parents of children with special needs, laid out a long list of problems they found with the way special education is administered. Among the concerns is that administrators are not responsive to reports of disruptive students, bus attendants are not adequately trained and students are improperly placed.

"We honestly feel these 4,000 special ed kids are really being betrayed, they're being neglected, they're being abused -- and I don't mean that in the sense of beatings, I mean in the lack of proper education they should get," MEA UniServ Director Mike Stephens said. "We're short everything."

Opponents of LaMore say there some students who should be in special education classes can't be placed because there is not enough room and that there has been a failure to provide trained staff.

"It just goes on and on and on," Stephens said. "Imagine being the teacher trying to teach all of these disabilities, with cognitive levels ranging from age 4 to whatever, 18 or 25 or whatever that might be. You can't do it."

Parents also addressed concerns Wednesday.

"Parents are having these things happen to them all the time, that they find out on accident that their child's education has been altered and no knowledge of it," Brenda Behrens, the mother of 17-year-old special needs student at Union High School, said. "But their children are not getting all of the services, the facilities, the equipment that they need to learn."

The critics say the district is aware of the problems.

"We have approached the district, we have approached the school board on different occasions to inform them of what was happening with our kids," Grand Rapids Education Association President Mary Bouwense said. "This is about our moral and ethical obligation to inform and bring about some change for our students."

"There is absolutely nothing in this that's not about the kids. There's not a nickel to be gained by any employee here," Stephens said.

They wrote a petition calling on GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal to remove LaMore.

>>PDF: Petition for removal of LaMore

The superintendent's response:

"The majority of issues and concerns raised by MEA -- and anyone else -- against Laura LaMore are absolutely, um, false," Weatherall Neal said. "Let me be real clear: Laura has awesome skills, she's exactly what we need, she's a member of my cabinet, a trusted member of my cabinet."

She said the district is making needed changes to special education.

"Change is hard. When you move the cheese for people, it's difficult to accept," she said. "But there are certain people that have chosen to do what they call a smear campaign -- a smear campaign -- they have enlisted outsiders to help with this. This is not how we do business in the Grand Rapids Public Schools."

Ron Caniff, head of the Kent Intermediate School District, said Lamore has support countywide.

"Please know that Grand Rapids Public Schools and the operation of these center programs has the confidence not only of Kent ISD but of all our 20 superintendents as well," Caniff said.

Weatherall Neal said she cares for a sister who was a special needs student at GRPS in the 1970s, so she has a special place in her heart for those students.

"The issues that they have raised have either been fixed or in the process of being fixed. This is not a new document," Weatherall Neal said. "This is a small group of people, a small group of people."

The union said this shows who has the real interests of students at heart.

"Here we are trying to improve the lot of 4,000 kids, here's the district trying to defend an administrator," Stephens said.

"I assure you, if there's something we are not doing, we have fixed it, we are going to fix it, we are in the process, we want to continue to work together," Weatherall Neal said.

The union says it will be forwarding its concerns to the federal government for investigation.

Neal also provided this statement on the complaints against LaMore:

"The overwhelming majority of items listed as reasons to support the removal are false. Those that are true have either been fixed or are in the process of being fixed. The unfortunate thing is that the union has been provided specific information in response to the concerns raised.

"Despite our on-going response and commitment to working with the union to address the concerns, they threatened us that they were bringing in an individual from the outside to engage in this "smear" campaign against Laura LaMore.

"We are hearing from many special education staff who do not agree with the allegations and the union's tactics. They report they feel bullied and pressured into signing the union petition and that these tactics are occurring during instruction time. We will be addressing that issue with the relevant staff.

"I want to be clear that I have no intention of removing Ms. LaMore "by February 27, 2018" as demanded in their letter; and I will not be a party to this effort to ruin the reputation of a competent educator who is doing the right thing for our students.

Many of the complaints listed regarding the special education program were raised several years ago. I commissioned a comprehensive evaluation that was conducted by Jeff Butler, a widely recognized special education attorney who at that time was a partner at LaPointe and Butler. The evaluation debunked many of the allegations. He found that the changes recommended by Ms. LaMore to improve the special education program were consistent with special education laws, rules, regulations, and Michigan Department of Education guidelines. The report did find that we needed to do a better job with communication and made eight (8) recommendations, the first of which was the creation of a Strategic Planning Team for the purpose of implementing the recommendations.

  • Of the 28 members of the Program Review Team established for guiding the Program Review, 17 committed to return to provide further input for the strategic planning process. The team consists of a general education teacher, two special education teachers, three special education teacher consultants, a parent, the GREA President (Mary Bouwense), two related service providers, a general education principal, a special education principal, a special education supervisor, the director of accountability for special education and an executive director. The team is co-facilitated by Ms. LaMore and Mr. Butler.
  • The first meeting was held on January 23, 2018 and there are three more meetings scheduled for the remainder of this school year.
  • The seven remaining recommendations are:

    • Recommendation #2 - Review Futures Report to include recommendations for the Strategic Plan
    • Recommendation #3 - K-12 supervisor alignment for the purpose of increasing accountability and communication to the system
    • Recommendation #4 - Explore GRPS ongoing operation of center based programs (began 8/2017)
    • Recommendation #5 - Define a specific set of criteria for awarding a Certificate of Completion
    • Recommendation #6 - Review policies and procedures for the implementation of Personal Curriculum for students with IEP
    • Recommendation #7 - Explore interplay between Section 504 and IEP
    • Recommendation #8 - Consider a 3 year review cycle for Program Review Process (began 1/23/18)
  • The Program Review Strategic Plan Committee made the following recommendations for Priorities:

    • Year 1 - Recommendations 3 and 4
    • Year 2 - Recommendations 5 and 6
    • Year 3 - Recommendation 7
    • Embed Recommendations 2 and 8 throughout

"The District continues to provide training for special education staff, including child care workers. Ms. LaMore was instrumental in developing a budget and prioritizing professional development for child care workers and paraprofessionals. Prior to 2015-2016 school year, these role groups were not included in PD. All staff in schools received three hours of emergency use of seclusion and restraint training. Staff at CTC Mayfield and Straight received training in the use of CPI (non-violent crisis intervention), and on the use of data for improving student achievement. Based on staff input, Employability Training Specialist certification is scheduled this summer for child care workers who service young adults at the 7 CTC sites. I am also implementing a new coaching plan next school year to assist general education teachers in educating students with IEPs.

"We realize that we have not been able to fully staff emotional impairment (EI) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) programming this year; however, it has been a challenge everywhere, not just for the GRPS. This is a national problem that is impacting us statewide, county wide, and locally. We have taken a number of steps to recruit and secure staff. We hired two professional recruitment firms to assist, but they were only able to find two special education teachers. Even then, the union filed a grievance. We are recruiting all of our special education student teachers for fall 2018 and I have authorized HR to offer early contracts to any qualified special education applicant. We have also offered to pay for ASD and EI endorsements for any of our current staff who are willing to take those assignments either now or in the fall.

"Specifically, we have also addressed the concerns at Straight. The following is a summary of current and future actions:

  • We have addressed the issue of consistent snow removal at fire exists and on the walkways.
  • There are sufficient toilets at Straight. In fact there are more at this community based site than at either Mayfield or the previous location of Lincoln KVO. However, knowing we serve a diverse population of young adults, we have hired an architect to design building improvements aligned to our communicated three-year plan. [This plan includes restroom upgrades.] It is important to understand that the facilities at Straight meet the standard code for toilet height.
  • Past practice was to replace broken glass windows with Plexiglass; and Plexiglass gets foggy over time. This practice has been discontinued. Last fall there was a series of storms that hit the area and window leaks were evident. These were promptly addressed by maintenance staff. [Replacement windows is a part of the 3-year improvement plan.]
  • Room dividers were installed in January immediately following the relocations that took place at City Middle/High.
  • Requested locks have been installed on staff restrooms.

"We have been very responsive to the issues and concerns. We have acknowledged where the areas of improvement are and are taking or have taken necessary steps to address them. There is simply no merit to the accusations against Ms. LaMore. We will continue to address legitimate concerns as they are brought to our attention."

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