Sag Harbor Superintendent Offers Overview of Special Education System

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves on Monday said students’ individual needs and federal and state laws prevent the Sag Harbor School District and school board from openly discussing the specifics of the special education programs because they serve such a small number of children and because talking about those needs would often identify the children needing those services, which is against the law.

“Before the program started I could talk about it all the time because we weren’t talking about individual students. Until the moment we developed the program, then we had to go radio silence,” explained Ms. Graves, who said Monday’s presentation had been planned prior to last week’s news coverage in The Express about the district’s special education program.

According to Ms. Graves, 13 percent of Sag Harbor’s approximately 980 students have individual education plans (IEPs), which are the unique blueprints for special education services that students with disabilities receive. Those IEPs may change from year to year as students make progress, which also means the school’s whole special education program may change from year to year, Ms. Graves said during Monday’s school board meeting.

“A child might move out of a self-contained classroom and into an integrated co-teaching model classroom,” she said. “We can’t say we have a program year-to-year or that’s how we’re going to staff something year to year, because we have to take a look at that.”

Students are then grouped “by common needs” in the “least restrictive environment” that meets their needs and allows them to be with their peers as much as possible, Ms. Graves said.

Board president Diana Kolhoff said while the board can talk broadly about programs such as the International Baccalaureate program or the science, technology and engineering curriculum, or even choose textbooks, “the difference is those are broad programs that meet the needs of lots of kids. The minute you develop that IEP for that kid, that’s not our role.” She said the most a school board can do is put together a different committee to consider a new IEP for a student whose parent or guardian thinks the existing IEP is insufficient.

Ms. Graves said the school board does mandate the district hold high standards in special education programming and hiring, just as it does for the rest of its programming and staffing.

“You make it clear we hire only the best,” she said.

Still, during a public comment session, Julian Barrowcliffe, a parent who has pushed for improvements to Sag Harbor’s special needs programs, handed the school board copies of state regulations that he said were a departure from what the board and administration had said that night. In particular, while Ms. Kolhoff said the board had a limited role, the state regulations say, “The board of education … shall, upon completion of its review of the recommendation of the committee on special education for special education programs and services … arrange for the appropriate special education programs and services to be provided to a student with a disability as recommended by the committee on special education.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Barrowcliffe said he saw Monday’s presentation as “a cautiously encouraging baby step.”

“The good news is that it’s a start,” he said Tuesday. “Nobody said anything about what we’re doing in Sag Harbor and whether it’s working or could be improved. That’s the real discussion. At least we’re now facing in the right direction as opposed to hiding under a rock.”