September 08. 2018 8:53PM

Lawsuit spotlights special ed problems in Manchester

By TODD FEATHERS
New Hampshire Union Leader


Matthew Cronin, 10, at school. (Courtesy of the Cronin family)

MANCHESTER - Days after moving to the city in January 2017, Susan Cronin walked into the front office of the Beech Street School with her then 8-year-old son, Matthew, and a bundle of documents necessary to register him for classes.

Matthew, who is autistic, was enrolled in the special education program at his previous school in Louisiana and had an up-to-date individualized education plan (IEP), the guiding document for his teachers.

But city administrators told Cronin they could not immediately enroll Matthew - first because they had to evaluate him and then because they had no room, according to Cronin.

Two fraught months passed for the family before Cronin filed a formal complaint with the state Department of Education and Matthew was finally accepted into the district.

Now, the Cronins are suing the Manchester School District, arguing that it violated Matthew's civil rights and several federal laws. It is the fourth federal special education lawsuit brought against the district in five years.

"For Matthew, more so I think than the average child, school means a great deal to him. It's his connection to the rest of the world," Cronin said in a telephone interview. "He would look at me with this betrayal in his eyes that just cut me to the bone because he thought it was me doing this to him. And he would just cry and wail for seven weeks."

Longstanding issues

Beginning in 2012, the state Department of Education placed Manchester in a focused monitoring program, requiring on-site inspections and reviews of student records, after the district scored poorly on several key indicators.

As recently as last fall, Manchester had made "minimal progress" toward correcting its "longstanding noncompliance," DOE Commissioner Frank Edelblut wrote in a Sept. 7, 2017, letter to Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

A week later, the district's top special education administrator resigned.

One of the primary areas of concern was the number of students the district was failing to evaluate for potential special education needs in a timely fashion.

Even under the focused monitoring, Manchester regressed from 2012-2013, when it evaluated 97 percent of students on time, to a low of 81 percent in 2014-15. As of 2016-2017, the district was evaluating 85 percent of students on time, still below the state average of 96 percent.

Manchester, the largest school system in the state and one with a higher proportion of low-income and non-native English speaking students, also trails most New Hampshire districts in other special education categories.

During the 2016-2017 school year, only 9 percent of the Queen City's students with IEPs were enrolled in higher education within a year of leaving school, compared to 39 percent statewide, according to DOE data. Also, just 64 percent of students with IEPs were enrolled in higher education or job training, or were competitively employed within a year, compared to 81 percent statewide.

"There's no arguing about the fact . that there's significant room for improvement and we're striving to do that," said Vargas, who took over the district in the fall of 2016. "It is my wish that I could say to every parent that every day we would be able to provide all the services to all our kids."

Different treatment?

In her lawsuit against the district, filed last month in U.S. district court, Cronin argues that administrators treated her son differently than they would have a child without autism.

While students who move from another school system are enrolled immediately - and even given a 10-day grace period in which to prove their Manchester residency - her son went without any kind of education from Jan. 10 until March 8, 2017.

First, the district required a new evaluation and physician's diagnosis of Matthew, according to the lawsuit. Then, administrators arranged for Cronin to tour the autism program at the Smyth Road Elementary School only to rescind that offer after writing in emails that the program was full, according to Cronin's lawyer, Sheila Zakre.

Vargas and Santina Thibedeau, administrator of the state's Bureau of Special Education, did not comment directly on the lawsuit.

But Thibedeau said that, in general, districts are required to educate children with valid IEPs immediately.

Even though Matthew was eventually enrolled, Cronin and her family moved out of Manchester because they had lost faith in the school system, she said.

In May 2017, a DOE investigator looking into Cronin's complaint determined that Manchester had violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to the lawsuit.

Other lawsuits

Last year, the Manchester School District settled three federal lawsuits involving abuse and unfair treatment of special education students.

The first, brought in 2014, accused former teacher Martine Gambale of dragging one student down a hallway and tying another to a chair.

The second, from 2015, claimed that former teacher Donna Varney put pepper and soap in the mouth of a 6-year-old student.

Both Gambale and Varney pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

The third suit, from 2016, claimed that the district discriminated against an immigrant student expelled in 2014.

The state DOE had also cited Manchester for disproportionately suspending or expelling black special education students.

Under Vargas, Manchester's special education leadership has undergone substantial change over the last year, and the new administration believes it is exiting what has been a dark chapter for the program.

"In the past two years we have been working hard to address each one of the concerns that was brought up to us in the (DOE) corrective action plan," Vargas said. "We were able to come out of corrective action" in April.

He acknowledged that there remain several areas of concern, though, including funding that lags behind other districts' and difficulty hiring and retaining a full retinue of paraprofessionals and certain specialists to work with special education students.

Several parents and special education teachers have complained to the school board over the last year that the staffing problems mean some students' IEPs aren't being fully met, according to meeting minutes.

"My fear is that this has happened to other families," said Cronin, "and they just don't understand that their rights have been violated."