Thursday, May 10, 2007

Think it won't happen to you?

Think again!

They are out of control and it won't be long before they target YOU and YOURS!

Long Island Press: Long Island Newspaper, News, Entertainment, Real Estate, Classifieds, Automotive, Weddings, Business News,...

Reading, ’Riting & Revenge
By April Jimenez

05/10/2007 1:46 pm

He looks like any other 12-year-old child—taller than his mother, with sandy hair that falls slightly over his light blue eyes. But when you ask Terence Connelly about what he did at school today, he stares blankly, visibly struggling with words that can’t seem to make their way to his mouth. Ask him about bees, though, and he’ll give you a description that rivals a National Geographic documentary on the subject. He may look like others his age, but he has several learning disabilities that hamper his ability to communicate.

Terry is dressed in short sleeves—any clothing too tight makes him feel constricted and itchy all over. He also overheats very easily. So he is very particular about his clothes. His mom, in turn, buys him the same clothes, which he wears day in and day out.

For this, she is being accused of being an abusive mother.

The line drawn in the sand regarding what is and isn’t child abuse is fuzzy at best. A parent disciplining an unruly child in the supermarket, muffled yells heard through a shared wall, an angry voicemail left for a child—all are open to scrutiny. But there are a number of Long Island parents who are shocked to learn that they are being accused of child abuse—by their school districts—for doing what they think is best for their children.

One Farmingville mother, Catherine Guglielmo, was accused of child abuse by her school district, not once, but twice—for keeping her son out of school, because he couldn’t walk after suffering serious injuries in a 2006 auto accident.

Another case involved Terence Connelly’s mother, Mary Connelly, from Westhampton Beach, who spent hours filing paperwork and having meetings with her son’s school last year, only to be told that there was no place for him at that school and that she should seek placement outside the district or in Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). She says that when she refused to "dump" her learning-disabled child into the BOCES system, the school district reported her to Suffolk County Department of Social Services’ Child Protective Services (CPS) Bureau for what CPS termed "educational neglect."

Every county Child Protective Services office is required to investigate child abuse and maltreatment reports, to protect children under 18 from further abuse or maltreatment, and to provide rehabilitative services to children, parents and other family members involved. CPS is a division of the state Office of Children and Family Services, which maintains a statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment for reports made pursuant to the Social Services Law.

The notion that a school district would retaliate against a parent by threatening to call CPS seems unbelievable. And yet it is happening, here on Long Island, and in other parts of the country—and some say it is a lot more common than we might think.

In Verona, a town in Upstate New York, the Knight family is in the middle of a court battle with their school district, because complaints they made against their autistic child’s teacher and school resulted in recriminations against their child and them. And then a complaint against the Knights was made to CPS.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what some say is a blatant abuse of the CPS system by school districts. There is no formula, or targeted group, no class discrimination or predisposed marker—the only thing that all these parents have in common is that they angered representatives of the school in some way.

Just A Bad Break?

Catherine Guglielmo has always considered herself to be a good mother. A divorced mom, she moved herself and her son Giovanni (not his real name) from Selden’s school district to the Sachem Central School District during the 2006 school year because she wanted her 13-year-old boy to have every opportunity possible. Sachem is considered one of the best districts on the Island. In August, Giovanni was hit by a car and was very seriously injured, fracturing his left femur. Giovanni was in surgery for hours and had three screws put into his leg. He was given very strict orders about what he could and couldn’t do in order for the important growth plate to heal correctly. Those orders included staying out of school until he healed.

Guglielmo says she went to her son’s new school, Sagamore Middle School in Holtsville, to request home tutoring. She supplied the school with a copy of a letter from her son’s surgeon at the time, Dr. Wesley V. Carrion, chief of pediatric orthopedics at Stony Brook University Hospital, mandating such. Sagamore guidance counselor William Cody questioned the validity of the letter, as well as Guglielmo’s motives, according to Guglielmo, who says Cody initially thought the date on the letter was suspect.

"I was told kids with broken legs come to school all the time," says Guglielmo, who challenged the guidance counselor’s statement and said, "I have to do whatever is best for my son, and at this time he needs to be home tutored." Guglielmo was told by Cody that the school would be in touch. The very next day, she says, Guglielmo was contacted by CPS. To her shock, she was reported for educational neglect. This was the first of two child-abuse claims the school would make against Guglielmo.

This is when, according to Guglielmo, the "harassment" began: Truancy officers made weekly trips to Guglielmo’s Farmingville home. After that, her landlord was asked to sign an affidavit proving Guglielmo lived in the district. Then, 30 days later, she was asked to supply additional proof in the form of credit card or utility bills.

"They were contradicting themselves, saying he wasn’t part of the district, then coming to my house and pounding on the door saying he is missing school, and sending me progress reports with his student ID number," says Guglielmo. Giovanni’s mother complied; she completed all proof-of-address forms and dropped off another prescription from Giovanni’s second physician, Dr. F. Javier Laplaza of Schneider Children’s Hospital, requiring home tutoring. Again, Giovanni was denied the tutoring, and still did not have medical clearance to attend school. A few days later, she says, Guglielmo was contacted by school principal Steven Siciliano, asking for more proof of residency. When she tried to explain the situation to the principal, she says Siciliano responded by raising his voice and telling her, "If you don’t straighten things out soon, I’m calling CPS on you."

On May 4, Giovanni received clearance from Dr. Laplaza to go back to school, with accommodations. These accommodations include a special bus, leaving classes early so as not to be knocked around in the hall, and no gym classes until further notice. Giovanni is still on crutches. And although the child is back at school, he has spent three months not being educated.

"He’s months behind in his school work—he’s a very bright kid and this really put a damper on him. He has an injury and he feels like the school was putting him at an unfair advantage," says Giovanni’s mother.

At home, with his leg resting on a chair, Giovanni says that the school’s actions were unfair, and that he just wants to go back and be a normal kid. He used to skateboard. He wants to go to college, loves to go fishing and boating and will gladly treat you to his best "Donald Duck voice," if he thinks it will make you smile—but his crutches keep him from doing the things he loves most, right now. He has been named the victim of abuse—but despite his fractured leg, it’s not the physical kind of abuse.

According to Guglielmo, although a CPS agent told her that both claims against her were unfounded, she has received no paperwork verifying this. But had the claims been "indicated," or found to be true, Catherine Guglielmo’s name would have stayed on the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment for 10 years after Giovanni’s 18th birthday, according to spokesman Brian Marchetti of the state Office of Children and Family Services. Yet she was simply doing what she thought best for her child. Is it any wonder parents buckle when schools threaten them with CPS?

When contacted by the Press, the Sachem Central School District responded by issuing the following statement: "It would be thoroughly inappropriate and a violation of New York State privacy laws to discuss matters pertaining to our school children and their families."

Falling On Deaf Ears

While it may be easy for parents to be angry at the county Department of Social Services and the CPS agent, the fact is that CPS is required to investigate every claim, even if the agent has doubts about its accuracy. And in New York State, mandated reporters, which include school officials, are obligated to report any suspicion of hazardous activity. If they don’t, reporters are guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, according to Marchetti.

"Any person required to report, who fails to do so, can be penalized," says Marchetti.

The complete confidentiality that comes with reporting makes it possible to abuse the system—not just for schools but for anyone, including parents in the middle of a custody battle or even vengeful employees or friends. Reporters are not required to leave a name if they choose not to.

One must ask if the system is flawed. It very well may be.

"There is certainly a problem. School [officials] are mandated reporters—and they have to report cases where there could be abuse, and rightfully so. But then, on the other hand—how much evidence should they really have before they report? It’s a complicated problem," says Nicholas Agro, a Port Jefferson education attorney who deals with families who have developmental- and learning-disabled children, who often are not receiving their federally mandated Free Appropriate Public Education. He says that these parents—parents like the Connellys—often contend with CPS threats.

Terence Connelly suffers from several learning disabilities—expressive-receptive language disorder, dyslexia (problems with reading) and dysgraphia (problems with writing)—and his parents suspect he also suffers from central auditory processing disorder, which he will be tested for in early June. Essentially, this 12-year-old has incredible difficulty communicating and processing information. After he was classified as "multiply disabled," his doctor said that Terence would benefit from being around typical children for the majority of his time.

Westhampton Beach Middle School did not make it easy for her to follow doctor’s orders, says Connelly. Very much aware that her son needed specialized attention, she requested that Terence have a personal aide so that he could be included in modified classes, and the teacher would be free to tend to the rest of the class without disruption—just as the doctor had suggested.

"I felt that was a good placement for him. I would have been happy with that arrangement—he did well [with a one-on-one situation] with a tutor at home," says Connelly.

But the school apparently wasn’t happy with that plan. Connelly says she was told by Westhampton Beach Middle School principal Charisse Miller that a personalized aide was not necessary and perhaps Terence would do better in BOCES or even in another district, and that he could be moved to the neighboring Center Moriches Union Free School District.

Connelly asked why Center Moriches could teach her son, when Westhampton Beach could not. A Nov. 19 e-mail from Principal Miller to Connelly chronicles the events of a Nov. 16 team meeting (a meeting with the student’s parents, teachers and administrators to discuss the child’s progress), in which Miller informs Connelly that the Westhampton Beach School District did not offer an "IEP [Individualized Education Program] diploma," (awarded when a student meets his or her personal IEP goals but does not meet the graduation requirements necessary for a local or Regents diploma) or a life skills program.

However, Connelly says, she found out later from the New York State Department of Education that Miller’s statement was not true and that the school district did offer an IEP diploma. Connelly, angry, says she confronted the school, chastised them for lying to her, and demanded that the school educate her son appropriately. Connelly also learned that her son was being bullied regularly—common for children with disabilities—and that his teachers knew about it. But she was never notified of the incidents, she says.

Two weeks later a CPS agent came to Connelly’s door. Connelly was accused of educational neglect, after an anonymous reporter claimed that Terence was "tired in school" and that he often wore the same clothes.

"I explained to the agent that he [Terence] had a sensory dysfunction and that he rips the labels out of shirts or won’t wear them if they don’t feel right. When we find a shirt he likes, we buy four or five of them," says Connelly, who then showed the agent Terence’s army of similar clothes, and his 10 pairs of identical shoes. The CPS agent declared the Connelly case "unfounded" and Terence now does have a personal aide in the classroom. He is passing almost all his classes, but his mom is always on the lookout.

"I don’t know why this happened," she says, "but we are scared it will happen again. It’s a terrible way to live."

Calls made by the Press to Superintendent of Schools Lynn Schwartz at Westhampton Beach School District were not returned.

To Help Or Hinder

Some say that the system is guaranteeing children like Terence and their parents unnecessary turmoil. Kathleen Chamberlain, president of East End Special Education Parents, a nonprofit advocacy group in Mattituck, says that the districts’ list of the signs of child abuse practically mimics the actual symptoms of many developmental and learning disabilities.

"They’re setting kids up with disabilities to be labeled and pointed out. The mandated reporters need to know the difference," says Chamberlain.

And, in fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stipulates that school personnel can hold a manifestation determination review to determine whether there is a link between the child’s disability and misbehavior. Furthermore, the IEP team is supposed to investigate whether the behavior is a direct result of the school’s failure to implement the IEP. This clause is meant to keep children with disabilities from being unfairly punished or labeled.

But is this policy working?

According to the 1998 Packard Foundation article "Protecting Children From Abuse and Neglect," about 65 percent of all reports were labeled unfounded after being investigated.

"Simply by changing the reporting process from anonymous to confidential [for all reporters] will greatly reduce the number of false reports coming in to CPS. Prosecuting those individuals who knowingly file false reports will reduce the number of those reports," says Chamberlain.

There is a provision in New York State law for intentional false reporting—and those cases are prosecuted by the county district attorney’s office. However, it is difficult to prosecute a false claim when it is made anonymously.

"I’ve never heard of it [a parent pressing charges against the person who made the false report]. Usually the parents are relieved when [the report] is unfounded and it just gets dropped—which is unfortunate," says Agro.

But some parents are not taking it lying down.

The Knights, the family from Verona, were systematically kept away from their autistic son Kyle’s classroom because they spent "too much time in the classroom," according to Kyle’s mother Tammie Knight. She believes that the reason she and her husband were kept out of their son’s kindergarten classroom is because in 2006 she accused the child’s teacher, Christina Amodie, of calling her autistic son a "loser."

"He came home from school on the third day, and stood there, arms straight down, knees pulled in, his face bright red, and said, ‘Mommy, Mrs. Amodie said I’m a loser,’" says Knight, who asked her child if he had lost at a game. Kyle responded that he had not. "She just said I was a loser."

Another incident Knight believes contributed to the school’s labeling her a troublemaker, as she puts it, also came about as the result of Knight being in the classroom. She observed that her son’s kindergarten class was left alone for eight to 10 minutes while Amodie was eating lunch, says Knight. These events ultimately resulted in Knight pulling Kyle from Amodie’s class—and although she requested numerous times that he be put in a different class, the school’s administration said it would be in his best interest to stay in Amodie’s classroom. The family filed a grievance with the state’s Manhattan regional Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the J.D. George Elementary School and the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School District for discriminating against Kyle and his parents because of his disability.

Messages left at the school and district office by the Press were not returned.

OCR found "insufficient evidence" to support that the district discriminated against Kyle or the Knights. Still, the family was the subject of a CPS report, one that originally was founded: Tammie and Kurt Knight were charged with "inadequate guardianship." The CPS report concludes that the two were not cooperating with the child’s IEP.

"Ironic. This is the exact claim that we had made against the school," says Knight. After the family contested the CPS report, she says, it was reviewed and amended to be unfounded: "The report and all information identifying you [Tammie Knight and Kurt Knight] as the subject of this report has been amended to legally sealed by the New York State Child Abuse/Maltreatment Register."

Knight wrote letters to both President George W. Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), but to no avail. Knight asked them to review the policy of schools that allows them to seek vengeance against parents through CPS, or discriminate against children because of a disability.

"Plenty of children in the school are being punished simply because they are autistic," says Knight, who reports that Kyle still attends J.D. George Elementary School this year. He has a wonderful teacher—but he is still failing.

Motives: Meddling Or Money

These are just a very small sample of the many stories that the Press investigated, about families accusing school districts of targeting them and retaliating. If this is as common and rampant as these families claim, why are schools doing this?

Most of the families believe it is simply to exact revenge, or to make an example of vocal parents, as in the Knight and Connelly cases, in which each mother intervened when she believed her child was being unfairly treated by a teacher. Auburn, N.Y., education attorney Andrew Cuddy names it an outright bullying tactic, used to pressure parents into compromising their child’s rights.

"Typically, a family backs down to whatever the school district is trying to do to the kid. This is a tactic employed by school districts in collusion with CPS," says Cuddy, who believes that districts’ motives range from trying to eject children who need special costly attention from the mainstream, to taking action against a parent who is outspoken or organizing protests against the school.

"It’s an intimidation thing, to have the parent back down. Because that’s all they’ve tried to do is intimidate me into falling in line," says Knight.

Others think it goes much deeper than that. George Deabold, an independent advocate and executive director of SchoolWatch, an LI-based school advocacy group with interests primarily in special education, believes that there are financial motives.

"The money [for lawyers] has nothing to do with budgets—legal fees are a non-contingent expense. They can spend as much on professional services and legal fees as they want," says Deabold. He adds, "I suspect there’s money going back to some of these schools, drumming up false cases, and getting lawyer hours. These schools are sending these attorneys on vacation."

Then there is the Guglielmo case. Catherine wonders how, if the validity of her address and her residence in the district were in question, her son could have received an active student ID number.

"Were they receiving money for him being there?" she asks.
The disturbing truth is that any of these possibilities could be true. Schools are no strangers to financial scandal.

But possibly the saddest part of this story is that these children are suffering at the very same hands that are supposed to protect them: the school, CPS and the adults they are supposed to trust.

"They are ruining these kids’ lives," says Deabold, who has seen firsthand exactly what can result from this cat-and-mouse game between the school district and the family, while working with the Sciaccas of East Islip. The family fell prey to a situation similar to the aforementioned families when Amanda Sciacca, then 15, got mononucleosis in January 2004. Additionally, Amanda suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and migraines. She missed six weeks of school, but when she tried to return she was accused of "school refusal" by Patricia Cuccia, the district’s then-special education director, says Maureen, Amanda’s mother. Cuccia is no stranger to controversy, as featured in the Press’ exposé "Special Education Gets An ‘F’" [March 9, 2006]. She had been a lightning rod for disgruntled parents until her early retirement. To read the story, visit and click on the "Award-Winning stories section.

Both Sciacca parents were reported for child abuse, even though Amanda’s family provided the school with doctors’ notes and documentation of her illnesses. After many hearings and six unfounded CPS claims (each parent was anonymously reported three times for educational neglect), Amanda chose to finish her high school career at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College, through a high-school equivalency program. And although the student continues to contend with her health problems, she is doing well in school. But she still suffers from the mental anguish the ordeal brought her.

"It is very difficult to see your parents do everything for you, and have someone tell them they are abusing you," says Amanda, now 18. She says she does not lament missing her education as much as missing out on the things that "regular teenagers" get to do, like go to the prom and graduation. "Those are memories I’ll never get back."

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