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Dedham resolves special-ed dispute

Federal agency orders changes

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 24, 2009

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Dedham’s school system has agreed to improve training and oversight in the town’s special education programs and provide compensatory services to 13 students affected by an unusual decision by the superintendent last year.

The agreement, part of a settlement with the US Department of Education, stems from a controversy last year in which School Superintendent June Doe removed a special education teacher from her classroom so the teacher could home-tutor the disabled child of a School Committee member. Teachers complained that the superintendent’s decision left 13 children out of sync with the terms of their individual education plans for at least two hours a day.

Last week, federal officials released a settlement agreement Doe signed on Dec. 14 that ended a six-month investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Doe did not admit wrongdoing. But she did agreed to provide compensatory services to the affected students, as well as to significantly step up checks and balances for special education students including specific training and monitoring.

As details of the settlement sank in, several of the teachers who brought the complaint were euphoric that their efforts have resulted in changes.

“I’m satisfied with how it turned out although, obviously, it would have been nice to have it resolved earlier,’’ said Liz Hegarty, a Grade 8 English teacher at Dedham Middle School. She signed on to the complaint to the Department of Education with a number of colleagues on the school’s faculty council.

“I see that the top issue on the resolution agreement is that students will be provided the services they missed out on last year,’’ Hegarty said. “That was the goal.’’

Doe did not return calls from the Globe seeking her comment. In March, though, she said the teacher at issue left the students in good hands, with active lesson plans, while she was tutoring off-site. She also denied showing any favoritism to the School Committee member, who is no longer in office.

Under the agreement reached this month, the Dedham school district must offer extended compensatory services to all students in the affected class, including instruction for two hours a day, four days a week, for three weeks over the summer.

If the children are unable to attend the session, the district must work with their parents to find time after school during the 2010-2011 academic year.

Officials must also develop a protocol and publish it on the district website ensuring that substitute teachers are aware of, and carrying out, the individual education plans for special-education students both in mainstream and special classrooms.

They must revise internal grievance procedures so those with complaints or concerns, like the middle school teachers, can present witnesses and other relevant evidence and expect resolution within a reasonable time frame.

Staff must be trained in all new policies, which will also be published online and in the district’s handbook, according to the agreement.

Further, Doe and other school officials must provide the Office of Civil Rights with draft copies of those new policies by Jan. 31 and final protocols by Feb. 28, along with the dates the trainings were carried out, the agreement states.

The district must have a final schedule for compensatory services by May 15 for each affected family and a list of students given the services must be submitted by Nov. 1. That must accompany a copy of the updated handbook and documentation proving that training took place, including the names and positions of those who gave the training, as well as those who received it.

School Committee chairman David Roberts had little to say about the settlement except to insist that some of the required modifications are already underway. Roberts was also adamant that the district did nothing wrong and said, as far as he was concerned, “the complaint is closed.’’

But middle school teachers like Dan Megan, who led the fight against the school system, disagree.

“The complaint is open until all remedies have been approved,’’ Megan said.

Some in the school district and on community blogs have insinuated that “Tutorgate’’ was a way to highlight the district’s longtime lack of a teacher contract. But Megan and Hegarty denied that.

“It has never been about the contract,’’ Hegarty said. “These are professional people who are passionate about their work. It was always about the kids.’’

Teachers stood up because they are legally bound to protect their students, she said. “We are the ones who signed documents that we would provide these services.’’

Now students will receive what they deserve, Megan said. “It’s everything we ever asked for, and more.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.