ESE teachers in Volusia County need support.
At the Volusia County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, Volusia United Educators President Elizabeth Albert shared stories of struggling ESE teachers in the district. ESE teachers, she said, are drowning as the Department of Justice has the district in a "chokehold."
"They're drowning under the weight of the paperwork that's required and the unreasonable workload that they're trying to manage," Albert said. She also asked the district to reinstate ESE planning days.
In 2021, the DOJ settled a case with Volusia County Schools where it addressed the district's "systemic and discriminatory practices" that the department said punished students with disabilities for their disability-related behavior and denied them equal access to VCS's programs and services. This was a result of a 2018 investigation involving 11 students with disabilities — nine of whom were autistic — who were subject to "overtly punitive" disciplinary tactics and law enforcement involvement to address behaviors associated with their disabilities. Among the tacts were regularly having parents or guardians pick students up from school, staff telling parents or guardians to keep students home, formal suspensions and using the Baker Act to remove students from campus.
Due to the settlement, VCS had to review and amend its policies and procedures involving students with disabilities. These include having written procedures for reporting and monitoring incidents of restraint and seclusion and providing training for this and providing parents with a written notice of the incident on the day of.
"If you want to emerge from this oversight and the constant management from DOJ, you must recognize that your ESE programs are not aligned to the intense needs of the students," Albert said.
Albert shared a statement on behalf of 29-year veteran ESE teacher Mary Tilford, who works with students with multiple disabilities. She deals with behavioral issues all day long, she said.
"I've been hit, spit on and scratched, but I love my students," Tilford's statement said. "I want more for them. The curriculum is not what they need, but I'm told to teach it anyway."
Albert also shared a statement by an unnamed ESE teacher who said she felt their backs were up against a wall "professionally, morally and legally."
"We show up every day to work in fear of being tasked with another non-negotiable responsibility," the teacher's letter said. "We have no idea what we could be walking into — whether it be meeting with an attorney, de-escalating a child in crisis or an accusation that staff are not fully implementing a child's IEP (individualized education program)."
Teacher Pam Westmoreland has taught ESE students for over 28 years. She told the school board what an average day looks like in her classroom, which includes her and her paraprofessionals teaching foundational skills, changing diapers, trying to help nonverbal children speak, monitoring behavior, implementing behavioral plans, refereeing disagreements.
"Please know that nowhere during my day is there any time for paperwork," Westmoreland said.
And while ESE teachers have a planning period, she added, these are often occupied with professional teacher meetings and IEP meetings.
"Amidst all this, I'm supposed to monitor 33-plus IEP goals, on average three per student, and conduct progress monitoring, some of which doesn't work because I have children that are nonverbal," Westmoreland said.
School Board member Carl Persis said he knows the ESE issue is real. He hears about it at every school he's visited.
"It's either ESE kids are out of control and everyone's afraid to do anything — to touch them, to disciple them, to manage them — and it's causing a real problem in schools," Persis said. "... I hear about people getting hurt, hear about children getting hurt, hear about staff members getting hurt. It's serious, and I don't know whether it is because of the DOJ issue that we are so scared of doing the wrong thing, that we're just going way overboard to protect ourselves or protect the teachers or protect the students."
School Board Chair Jamie Haynes said she has also heard from experienced ESE teachers about the amount of paperwork they're subjected to.
"I don't want to see us hit winter holidays and several of them walk out the door and say, 'I'm finished,' because it's just going to harm our children," Haynes said.
As of Friday, Nov. 17, VCS has 34 ESE teacher vacancies district-wide. District four, which includes Ormond Beach, has 10.
VCS Superintendent Carmen Balgobin said discipline and behavioral issues overall have escalated nationwide, and that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed significantly. When she became superintendent, she inherited the DOJ issue.
DOJ's team of lawyers, Balgobin said, meets with VCS almost on a monthly basis. Sometimes, twice a month.
Though new policies were enacted a year-and-a-half ago, she said, at the beginning of this year, DOJ conducted a full evaluation of the policies for disabled students. DOJ did not accept the implementation of training provided to VCS staff "because of the content, format and also implementation," Balgobin said.
"So we had to come back to the table and discuss," she said. "Because when you're receiving federal dollars for ESE students, that's where the compliance piece comes into play."
Some of the meetings that followed lasted hours.
Since then, some progress has been, she said, and DOJ is listening to their concerns. The district has implemented a logging tool in about five to six schools, and in about three weeks, they will see if it's been working. If it is, she said the hope is it would make the documentation work easier for teachers. The district is also hoping to give ESE teachers a planning day to do paperwork, something that will cost about $500,000.
"I believe in doing what's right for all children, regardless of their label," Balgobin said. "That's something I firmly believe in, but I want all of you to understand that this has not been easy on any of us, so we're going to walk through this together."