District failed to follow-up on records check, report says

An investigation into the events leading to the Dec. 17 attack on a special education teacher by a developmentally disabled student indicates that a group home and California’s Kern Regional Center failed to provide the district with relevant information about the student’s history early on.

Still, district personnel demonstrated a lack of persistence and follow-through, according to law firm Dionne & Rorick, which the district hired to conduct an investigation into the incident.

A Federal Way Public Schools employee who was involved with the student and had access to his records will have a letter of direction placed in the employee files. The letter is not a reprimand, it simply directs the employee how to handle similar situations in the future.

Another employee will receive a suspension without pay.

Federal Way Public Schools director of community relations Diane Turner said the district would reveal neither the employees’ identities nor the capacity in which they worked with the student.

The law firm said in a report released Friday the only real way to compel agencies to release information to school districts would be a change in state law.

Turner said the district was taking action to ensure more secure policies are in the place in the future, including adopting a new admissions policy, requesting the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to audit special education admissions and hiring Dionne & Rorick to conduct an independent investigation.

“The bottom line at the end of the day is you can’t assume the procedures and policies are being handled in the way we want them to be,” she said. “There’s no one specific incident and no one specific person because you have a large number of people involved.”

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction audit is expected to begin tomorrow and should be finished by March 15.

District personnel received two transfer packets of information on the teen-ager, a 15-year-old from the Bakersfield, Calif. area who had a history of sexual aggressiveness, threats toward other students and staff, a tendency to set fires and an attack against a teacher’s aide.

Washington Mentor Network, the agency which took custody of the child and placed him in a group home in Federal Way, provided the district with a transfer packet about Sept. 17, 2001, and the Kern High School District provided another about Nov. 20, 2001.

The Kern High School District records arrived more than a month after Lakota Junior High psychologist Beth Ferguson requested the student’s records.

The teen entered Jennifer Panico-DiGiorgio’s class on Nov. 9.

Several special education personnel said they don’t remember the assault on the aide being discussed at an Oct. 9, 2001 meeting with Washington Mentor Network worker Janell Featherstone, though at least one staff person, Janet Bliss, the district’s transition specialist, requested more detail.

According to the report, “Ms. Bliss noted that, based on a previous Mentor placement of another student, in which case the District had not been provided with all relevant information at the outset, she pressed Ms. Featherstone, and was satisfied that no information was being withheld and that there were no ‘red flags.’ ”

Featherstone minimized the assault on the aide, according to the report, focusing instead on the teen’s sexual aggressiveness.

“When children come in and that is the legal guardian, it’s just like a parent,” Turner said. “If some of the information was emphasized or de-emphasized, we take that in developing a program with the child.”

That said, she added the district is not entirely blameless.

“We also have to look at ourselves,” she said. “We have to be more detailed, more persistant, and (have to) make sure we have all the discipline information.”

Some district mishandling of the records appears in the transfer of the records among staff. According to the report, Ferguson sent both packets of the teen’s records to Federal Way High School psychologist Jim Stapp.

Stapp said he conducted a cursory review of the November file, but not the September file because he thought it was a duplicate.

On Jan. 4, almost a month after the attack, Ferguson reviewed the boy’s Federal Way Public Schools file. She only found the November packet.

Dionne & Rorick’s report says it is unclear what happened to the September file.

That same day, district and Washington Mentor staff met with Bret Harney, a Kern County court liaison who works with the Kern Regional Center, which handles a variety of developmentally disabled cases.

Harney, who had worked with the teen since the boy was 4 years old, provided information not formerly held by the district.

Dionne & Rorick said in its report that the January files “provided the greatest detail regarding the student’s past behavior, including the repeated conclusion that he was a threat to others.”

Harney’s report also noted the boy had been expelled from at least 15 schools for behavior problems.

Christopher Willis, Federal Way Public School’s co-director of student support services, said Washington Mentor had Harney’s reports in its possession, but district staff said they did not receive the reports until Harney provided them on Jan. 4, 2002.

Despite the attack, which Superintendent Tom Murphy called “an extremely unfortunate incident that saddened all of us,” district personnel are moving forward with policies in the hopes of preventing future incidents

Meanwhile, Turner praised the special education staff.

“We have a very hard-working staff and special education teachers are tremendous people because of the very difficult job. The vast majority are working so hard. We want to commend that staff for the hard work,” she said. “At the same time, we have to pay attention to detail and be persistant.”

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