About 80 Gilbert district special needs students’ registrations have been put on hold to attend the East Valley Institute of Technology in the fall, and several parents are upset their teens may not be able to attend the Mesa school.
During a Gilbert governing board meeting Tuesday, the parents voiced their concern about problems stemming from a complaint filed against EVIT by Glenna Hastings, a Gilbert Unified School District employee. The complaint alleges harassment and a hostile environment against Hastings and special needs students at EVIT.
“I want special ed kids to be treated fairly at EVIT,” said Hastings, who has supervised Gilbert district special needs students who attend EVIT, a regional career-technical school, for 10 years. “I want special ed kids to be treated with respect with no harassment.”
The complaint led to an investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that began in March.
George and Jeanne Hulecki found out Tuesday their Highland High School sophomore son may not be able to go to EVIT next year. They didn’t know the full details of the complaint, only that their child was being affected. Their son was already enrolled in the video production class, had passed the exam and taken a tour of the school. He had planned to attend EVIT since the sixth grade.
“This has been my son’s journey to spend half his day at EVIT,” Jeanne Hulecki said. “Now, I don’t know what his schedule will be next year.”
Her husband, George, said he thinks the whole issue is “very discriminatory.”
EVIT spokeswoman Lynn Strang acknowledged that about 80 new students from Gilbert who have Individual Education Plans for their special needs were told they’ll have to wait to be accepted into an EVIT program while the investigation is completed, based on advice from EVIT’s attorneys.
No other school districts are being affected, Strang said.
“They have applied for fall. Once this gets settled, they’ll be welcome to come,” Strang said. “We’re not going to put ourselves into that situation until we hear what the outcome is.”
Gilbert district Superintendent Dave Allison said he was taken by surprise last week when an EVIT official dropped off a box of IEPs and said EVIT was not accepting those students at this time. He told the parents at the meeting the district was working to “break this impasse.”
“I feel they did this in retaliation,” said Allison. “We are working to resolve the issue for these poor parents. At this point, we’re working through our lawyers.”
Board member Helen Hollands asked that the parents bring their message to EVIT’s governing board.
Jill Tabar, whose son is a junior at Mesquite High School, said he planned to attend EVIT for computer science.
“My son has been looking forward to this for so long,” Tabar said. “His heart will be broken if he doesn’t get to go.”
Strang said the report from the Office of Civil Rights is expected back before the next school year starts.
“Our assumption is they found nothing wrong at all, but until we get the report, we don’t know,” Strang said.
Gilbert students already in EVIT programs will have no change in their status, Strang said.
EVIT is not funded in the same way other public school districts are, said EVIT Superintendent Sally Downey. The school does not receive federal funding for special education, though it accepts students who have IEPs.
That federal money stays with students’ home districts. EVIT then requires each district to have liaisons on campus to facilitate students’ needs, such as setting up accommodations for testing or note taking. Those liaisons are paid for by their individual districts, but EVIT provides office space and computers, Downey said.
Hastings argued that EVIT continues to say it doesn’t receive money for special needs students, but said that EVIT and the district split state enrollment funding and EVIT gets $3,200 for every student who attends the campus.
Also, because EVIT doesn’t have any staff to work with special education children, the Gilbert district pays for five full-time employees, including two teachers and three paraprofessionals, to work with these students. This is at a cost to the Gilbert district in excess of $150,000, Hastings said.
While some of the information parents are hearing includes complaints about EVIT not accepting special education students, Downey said that isn’t true.
This school year, 24 percent of EVIT students from its 10 feeder school districts are on IEPs, including 136 from Gilbert Unified School District.
“The same people are telling untruths,” Downey said. “It’ll pass. They’re saying things like EVIT doesn’t want special education students. They’re stirring the pot.”
Hastings said she has had problems enrolling Gilbert special needs students for the past three years, and said the longer EVIT waits to enroll them, the less chance the students will get to make it into the class they want because it will fill up.
Hastings said she has also been banned from the EVIT campus since December after disputes with EVIT administrators.
“I know my job and I know it well,” said Hastings, a certified special education teacher with a masters degree in administration and supervision. “It’s hard to think that someone would be so shallow to hold the fact that they don’t like me to the kids. The only thing I’m guilty of is advocating for special ed. This is ridiculous.”
Strang, EVIT’s spokeswoman, said in a letter to that Tribune on Monday that EVIT asked for Hastings to be reassigned because “she continually took matters into her own hands regarding the special needs students, i.e. moving them to a different class without the appropriate meeting or paperwork, allowing IEPs to expire, and not responding to communications from the student services director at EVIT.”
Downey said some very successful students at EVIT do have IEPs. They’re successful because they’ve been “appropriately placed” in a program they can do well in, Downey said.
About 90 percent of the Gilbert special needs students have learning disabilities, such as problems with reading, and require a reading specialist. “These kids aren’t kids who are wheelchair bound,” Hastings said. “We’re talking about high-level kids.”
Strang said the complaint filed by Hastings included the accusation that there was harassment and a hostile environment, “to which every instructor provided affidavits showing absolutely no validity to the complaint,” Strang wrote to the Tribune.
Hastings said, she’s put her “job on the line to stand up for these kids. It’s like I’m standing on an island in the ocean by myself. Enough is enough.”