Special education symposium draws crowd

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Teachers, school administrators, parents, disability rights advocates and attorneys gathered at Flathead Valley Community College on Thursday and Friday to move forward the discussion on special education needs in the region.

The “Special Education: Kids, Families, Schools and the Law; Working Together for Success,” symposium drew roughly 100 attendees in all.

The symposium, organized by Disability Rights Montana, covered topics ranging from the nuts and bolts of special education to best teaching practices and a question and answer session with attorneys.

Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana, said she hoped to hold similar symposiums across the state.

“What’s really pretty remarkable about this event if you look at the agenda we have Elizabeth Kaleva, who is the attorney that traditionally represents school districts, and Andree Larose, who traditionally represents parents. They often are the attorney’s that are working on opposite sides,” Franks-Ongoy said.

She said there was high interest for such a symposium in the Flathead Valley.

“There are 11.3 percent of students entitled to special education across the state. In [Kalispell School] District 5 there are 700 students on an Individualized Education Plan,” Franks-Ongoy said. “That’s a tremendous amount of students that are receiving special education services.”

The amount schools and parents have to learn regarding laws, rules, regulations, and rights is extensive and may be overwhelming, she said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on schools to be able to provide what they need to provide with limited dollars and parents are overwhelmed navigating through the process,” Franks-Ongoy said, “so this was the opportunity (for) parents, educators and school administrators to be together to at least share the information on an even playing ground.”

Parents Elizabeth Cummings and Erika Johnson, who both attended the symposium, each have children diagnosed with autism. Cummings said a conference that covers such an expanse of topics, as this one did, may seem daunting to parents at first, but proved invaluable.

“You’re sitting all day with people who make decisions for your kids, so it takes a level of confidence to be willing to join the conversation,” Cummings said.

She said her background in teaching gives her an insight when sitting in on meetings about the education plans, both as a teacher and as a parent.

“As a parent I am always looking for opportunities to enhance my knowledge-base of special education and further my understanding of the policies that guide it. I know from some other involvement I’ve (had) in state organizations, we have some of the most respected names here today,” Cummings said.

Johnson, who co-founded Bridges Autism Advocacy Group, said improving the quality of life and enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities should be a community effort, not limited to parents and schools.

“We need to come together as a community and support students with disabilities so that they may be functioning members of our community, because they do have so much to add,” she said.

Johnson said the symposium opens the door of information and communication about special education to average people, who may in other situations get intimidated by the legal jargon.

“There’s a huge need for more information dissemination,” Johnson said.

Thursday’s keynote speaker was Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney with Disability Rights Network. His presentation “Working together for Success” discussed the roles adults have in creating education plans that set up students with disabilities for success.

Hager emphasized that these plans should not be limited to parents, teachers and administrators but shared with any professional — such as bus drivers, hall monitors or lunch servers — who may interact with a child who has a disability.

“Ever heard of consistency and how important that is with people with disabilities?” Hager asked. “We want consistency.”

He said regular classroom teachers should also be vocal with administration if they need additional training.

“If there’s going to be any support or in-service training, that goes on the IEP,” Hager said. “We want success. We want the resources to be there, not just for the student, but also the teacher.”

Meetings between parents and schools aren’t always smooth sailing, Hager said, but there’s a solution if emotions escalate.

“If you end up having the miscommunication, the animosity, the anger, the resentment — what do we do? Hopefully, we come past it. If not, you can do mediation,” Hager said adding, that mediation has to be mutually agreeable.

The ultimate goal, he said, is working together in the student’s best interest.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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