Sag Harbor Parents Criticize School District’s Special Needs Program

Olin, one of Julian and Beth Barrowcliffe's sons, works on an activity with one of his specialists. Photo courtesy Barrowcliffe family

A handful of parents in the Sag Harbor School District who have children with acute special needs have come forward to allege the district is not able to provide a program that meets their children’s needs. Some further allege that a statement by the school board of education, stating it was not authorized to change special education programming or make placements in the program, is discrimination.

These claims come amid a climate of concern that there is a general lack of appropriate services on the South Fork for children with severe autism and other disorders that affect health and development. A charter school dedicated to children with special needs, the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, which leased land and a building on Stephen Hands Path in East Hampton, closed in 2016. Last year, citing the lack of a state license and the for-profit nature of the Gersh Academy, the East Hampton Town Board denied a request by Kevin Gersh to take over the lease for that facility — plunging this issue, and many of these parents, into the spotlight.

“All any of us are asking them to do is raise their game to average. We’re not asking for anything gold-plated or world-leading,” said Julian Barrowcliffe, who has spoken at recent school board meetings in Sag Harbor and at town board meetings in East Hampton.

Julian and Beth Barrowcliffe’s three-year-old son, Olin, isn’t old enough to actually attend school in Sag Harbor but receives “early intervention” home services. The couple alleges it was a challenge to obtain those services. The family also says the school board’s denial to have an open discussion about the state of the special needs program amounts to discrimination following a statement on March 26 by school board president Diana Kolhoff, who read a statement that said, “the BOE is not authorized to make special education placements nor alter programming.”

“They can’t let that comment just stand — they cannot let that comment sit like that. It’s unacceptable,” Ms. Barrowcliffe added.

Mr. Barrowcliffe said they and other parents of special needs students have tried to communicate in civil fashion, but “have gotten nowhere.”

“We want these children out here to get what they deserve,” Ms. Barrowcliffe said. “For the families who can’t really speak like we can about this — we’d love to see some proper change that has some tentacles to it that will stay.”

In response to the claim of discrimination, Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves said the Sag Harbor School Board “actively supports student programming” in its goals.

“Special education programming is developed from the annual individual student Chair on Special Education meetings,” she said. “The culmination of the meetings drives the school/district based programming and must have a level of confidentiality.”

Patricia Moyer’s seven-year-old daughter Emily is in the inclusion program — where students with special needs learn alongside typically developing children in the same classroom, with multiple teachers present. The program takes place at Sag Harbor Elementary School. But Ms. Moyer says she had to fight the school to get Emily, who is on the autism spectrum, into the inclusion program rather than the self-contained class where students with acute needs are educated together in a group setting. While Emily was in the self-contained class in 2015, says Ms. Moyer, she eloped from a gym class — that is a term referring to a child with autism who leaves a classroom on his or her own — and made it almost to Route 114 before another teacher noticed her outside the school building. Ms. Moyer also described another incident in which her daughter was given a time-out after she had undressed herself in front of a class that included boys, before she dressed herself completely again.

“It’s very disheartening that the district thinks this is an appropriate way to handle a special needs child,” Ms. Moyer said.

Legally, school district cannot comment on specific incidents for privacy reasons in an effort to protect children.

“At Sag Harbor Schools, student safety is our highest priority everyday,” Ms. Graves said. “We have many safeguards in place in our district and school safety plans and our daily protocols to keep our students safe. … The Board of Education’s goals have focused on student wellness, which includes every student and all our staff feeling safe and valued. We work to keep that a priority every day in our practice and programming.”

There was a point at which Ms. Moyer was happy with the program, she said, but staffing changes have since occurred. She says she has since advocated for more training for existing staff and for more qualified personnel to be put in place.

“I still remember [principal] Matt Malone being quoted in the paper saying that we need to welcome these students home, that we need to be there for all of our students,” she said. “For people with kids with very severe needs it was refreshing to hear. But I don’t know if they fully knew who they were welcoming back. I don’t think they did their full homework.”

Ms. Moyer herself, who has three other children and works as a teacher in a nearby school district, has gone back to school to become a board-certified behavior analyst to be able to help her daughter.

“This program could work with the training. I have to have faith that it will work,” she said. “There’s nothing else out there.”

Ms. Graves also said few options exist for children with special needs — the impetus for Sag Harbor School District’s program.

“The East End is in many ways isolated from the rest of Long Island and New York State’s resources for students with special needs,” she said. “Sag Harbor School’s work to develop programming to support our students with special needs has drawn interest and support from area districts.”

And not every parent is dissatisfied with the special education program. Heather Hartstein, whose son Shane has Down Syndrome and is in the inclusion program at Sag Harbor Elementary, has seen her child thrive.

“He has started to read, which for every child is a magical moment,” Ms. Hartstein said. “With a child with special needs you’re always trying to keep the bar high. You never really know where the propensities are going to lie. It’s month to month, year to year. The manner with which he communicates, the way he is able to have that vocabulary acquisition, fluency and articulation, have helped him make enormous strides socially because now the children can understand what he is saying. That’s been amazing.”

She credited the “strength of the team approach” in the program as the source of its success.

“We have worked together to come up with the solutions as we have needed them,” she said. “Things are not perfect and when hiccups have come, I have voiced my concerns to the school in a matter-of-fact way. I personally have had a phenomenal response from everyone.”

Erika Remkus is a Sag Harbor parent of three, including nine-year-old Jack, who has autism as well as a neurological disorder, and is considered “ungraded” in the self-contained program at school. She said her experience with public schools — which has also included Center Moriches — has been characterized by fighting, and has led her to believe “for children like him, there is no place in a public school.”

“There are effective ways to help my son,” she said. “I strongly believe it’s not in a public school setting in any capacity.”

Ms. Remkus said one solution could be if the South Fork public schools could pool their resources and establish one common, centralized program and staff it properly.

“They have shared sports — why can’t they do that?” she said.

At least one organization has taken note. Riverhead-based East End Disability Associates, Inc., which serves all age groups, is looking to expand with a facility in East Hampton, recognizing that services are usually hard to find, according to Camden Ackerman, EEDA’s manager of development and public relations. The organization does not work with school districts currently but Mr. Ackerman said it’s a possibility in the future.

“We are more than happy to begin collaborating with anyone who needs help,” he said. “We are looking to dramatically expand our South Fork presence.”

Ms. Graves said she is proud of the work her staff has done and is grateful for the community support.

“With the support of the Sag Harbor School Board, Sag Harbor Schools will continue to ‘do what is best for students, fair for adults, and what the community can sustain,’” she said. “As our students continue to grow and learn, my hope is that our parents faith and trust in our programming will continue to grow.”