Speaking Truth to Power on Behalf of Special Ed Students
Would you be willing to entrust the special education safety and welfare of your own precious child — a child who may be medically fragile, nonverbal, autistic, intellectually disabled, emotionally disturbed, deaf or hard of hearing, visually or orthopedically impaired, a child who may need assistance with toileting to Fresno Unified?
~Susan Wittrup, a Fresno Unified psychologist
It was a remarkable, dramatic event on a night that leaders rolled out something worth celebrating: a $10 million ongoing increase in the special ed budget — mostly for more teachers, speech-language pathologists, and paraprofessionals.
The five were courteous and they praised the district’s big investment in special ed. But never did they stray from conveying the gut-wrenching, soul-scarring realities and hardships that result from the district’s poor decision-making.
In effect, they indicted leadership’s special-ed staffing choices, the failure to consult with those on the front lines, and the rush to “inclusion” at the expense of what’s best for the student.
Understand: Fresno Unified long has been a place where rocking the boat puts a teacher at risk. Teachers learn early on that candor is not your ally.
It took courage for the women — teachers Lark Atkin, Jennifer Silva, and Patricia Camarillo; occupational therapist Natalie Turner; and psychologist Susan Wittrup — to speak out.
But trustee Keisha Thomas dispelled any doubt about the righteousness of their gospel: “I would hope that they are not retaliated against!”
Atkin also cited a problem in the region of every board members. Her words to trustees Valerie Davis and Carol Mills stood out.
“Trustee Davis, in your region, there is a STARS program that houses orthopedically impaired students. I can’t even call it an orthopedically impaired program because there is no equipment. …”
“Trustee Mills, in your region, in your region an orthopedically impaired student (was) removed from an OI program where the student had access to the medical therapy program 50 feet from his classroom. He is now likely permanently wheelchair-bound despite the orthopedic teams warning to managers that this would happen if the student was removed from that campus.”
Are you outraged? If not, you should be.
“I would hope that they are not retaliated against!” — Trustee Keisha Thomas
Silva, who teaches the deaf and hard of hearing and is the department chair, noted the revolving door of administrators above her and the shift of staff to other programs.
In addition, she said, “About 30 percent of our students may be identified with other disabilities, but we don’t have a program for deaf students with additional disabilities … These students are isolated and language-deprived.”
Turner, who works with 80 minor and adult students, said that high workloads “make it impossible” to provide the occupational therapy they need. She advocated for 3.6 new occupational therapist positions in the next budget, not the two proposed.
“We can’t start (next year) the way this year has been,” Turner said. But, she added, “I am concerned that management will continue to make decisions without the stakeholders’ input. This happens frequently. We are the professionals I keep hearing management say they need to talk to.”
Camarillo teaches visually impaired students and is the department chair.
“Eighty percent of learning in an educational setting is visual. For students with visual impairments including blindness, this means they are missing out on a vital part of learning,” she said. “In my experienced opinion, we do not have the educational resources and supports in our program to meet the needs of students with visual impairments to provide quality instruction and services.”
She criticized a decision to close Special Day classes for visually impaired students “to implement fulltime inclusive practices in general education without preplanning for the roles and responsibilities that would shift due to the change.”
Students would be better served if they spent part of the day in general ed classrooms but also worked with specialists “on disability-specific skills in specially designed settings based on their disabling condition.”
Again, Camarillo is so obviously right, you have to wonder what her bosses were thinking.
Wittrup is the psychologist at Starr Elementary School. She has worked in the district for 34 years. She is serious about her work and about helping students.
Her carefully chosen words should be a wake-up call to Superintendent Bob Nelson and Brian Beck, the assistant superintendent of special education, that funding — while important — doesn’t matter if district leadership ignores the recommendations of the very people entrusted by the community to nurture their children.
“The funding matters a lot but we know that all the money in the world will not get the results our students deserve, without the right leadership and expertise,” Wittrup told the board. “I urge you to ask hard questions tonight and make sure you get solid answers.
“How well does this proposal match special educators’ and parents’ perceptions of what’s needed? You should be aware that besides working in some of the grubbiest corners of the district, we also do much of our work in the dark without the specialized guidance the field demands. You should know our input is not always valued or even solicited and mostly it hasn’t been encouraged or heard. The consequences of not listening to those on the front lines with children every day has been harmful.
“The second question is one to ask yourself. Would you be willing to entrust the special education safety and welfare of your own precious child — a child who may be medically fragile, nonverbal, autistic, intellectually disabled, emotionally disturbed, deaf or hard of hearing, visually or orthopedically impaired, a child who may need assistance with toileting to Fresno Unified?
“If your answer is anything other than a resounding yes to this question please look closer and demand the answers that will ensure this additional funding is paired with skilled, qualified and ethical leadership.”
Judging by the questions the trustees had for Beck, whose answers and explanations were less than convincing to my ears, these five women were heard loud and clear.
In the best-case scenario, Nelson and his team double down on moving Fresno Unified forward with collaboration, best practices, accountability, and respect for those called to do right by the district’s 8,000 special-ed students.
Bill McEwen is news director and columnist for GV Wire. He joined GV Wire in August 2017 after 37 years at The Fresno Bee. With The Bee, he served as Opinion Editor, City Hall reporter, Metro columnist, sports columnist and sports editor through the years. His work has been frequently honored by the California Newspapers Publishers Association, including authoring first-place editorials in 2015 and 2016. Bill and his wife, Karen, are proud parents of two adult sons, and they have two grandsons. You can contact Bill at 559-492-4031 or at Send an Email