Teachers, parents and students brought issues affecting special education programs, safety and discipline issues in Federal Way Public Schools to Tuesday night’s school board meeting.
Stephanie Mateus, a teacher at Sacajawea Middle School, told Superintendent Tammy Campbell, board President Claire Wilson and the rest of the board that she felt the school district was not properly meeting the needs of special education students.
Mateus said she has 32 kids in her class, 17 of whom are on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
She also shared safety concerns regarding physical violence and foul language being used by students.
“Since the first month of school, I have seen nothing but physical altercations between sixth-graders, eighth-graders,” Mateus said, noting a lack of protection from the district.
Sandy Clayton, whose son, Sam, is enrolled in a special education program at TAF@Saghalie Middle School, was upset about the lack of inclusion she saw for IEP students.
When giving her comment, she only referred to it as Saghalie Middle School, because she said her son was not included as part of the academy.
She asked the board to take positive steps to ensure students like Sam would be included in the school community.
“His class is isolated in the classroom and the lunchroom,” Clayton said, “The message being sent to their typically developing peers is that they are inferior, that they are to be ignored, that they are not worthy of basic human rights.”
According to the school district’s most recent statistics, the number of special education students is about 14.5 percent, which is about 3,465 students out of a total population of nearly 24,000. In 2015-16, special education students represented 12.9 percent of the district’s then-population of 22,930 students.
Special education staff, teachers, and school therapists try to help the students as much as they can, but they need more support from the administration, Clayton said.
She suggested the board to look for more creative solutions to possible financial roadblocks and implementing a buddy system that carries from kindergarten to high school.
Clayton said when her son was at Green Gables Elementary School, there were several student volunteers that mentored Sam and his classmates, and the teacher encouraged students to get involved.
“If kids can figure it out, why can’t our administration?” she said.
Clayton was one of the many residents who waited in the packed and overflowing City Hall to explain her concerns to the board.
Catherine Young said she took her two children out of the district because she thought they would have a better learning environment elsewhere. She is concerned about safety for students, including those in specialized programs.
“You guys are failing us,” she told the board.
Young started a special needs PTA to help families navigate what she sees as a broken system, adding that IEPs are not being followed and there is a disconnect between the district and families.
“We beg and plead and scream for what’s best for our children, from inclusion to safety to health, yet it falls on deaf ears,” she said.
Tammy Krupp, a registrar for Sacajawea Middle School, said she has seen parents pull students out of the school due to consistent bullying. She also referenced a hands-off policy, which she said wasn’t an official policy within the district, but was widely understood among teachers as the best course of action when dealing with distraught and disruptive students.
“One-hundred percent of staff across the district are affected by discipline and safety issues,” she said.
Krupp said these issues have at times escalated to physical violence, and family members of staff sometimes worry about their safety at work.
“We love what we do; we love helping the kids,” she said. “That’s why we stay.”
According to district spokeswoman Kassie Swenson, the school district does not have a hands-off policy and instead employs de-escalation strategies.
“In rare instances and if there is imminent danger, or the likelihood of harm to self or others, district staff may physically restrain a student,” Swenson told the Mirror, adding that training is offered for de-escalation strategies and “physical holds” in order to prevent harm to any students or staff during an incident.
After public comment, Campbell said she and the board were listening to the concerns and working toward a response to benefit everyone in the district. She said the board conducted a special education audit in August 2017 to take steps toward creating a better environment for students.
“When families advocate and say they want their children to be included, that’s a good thing and we need to be thinking about how to do it,” she said. “We don’t want our scholars feeling like they’re second-class citizens; that’s a threat to equity.”
Campbell also addressed safety and disciplinary issues. Three months ago, she met with leadership in the teacher’s union to discuss concerns about supporting schools with these problems and allocated funding in the budget to support safety and security.
She said the board will send out a plan within the next week detailing the preventative steps it will take to address the concerns, adding that the community is essential to solving the issues.
“We are not passive about this,” she said. “There is no such thing as a quick answer. We all have it as a collective. It will take all of us together to address this issue.”