BRUNSWICK, Maine — Changes could be coming to a school department procedure that has alarmed some parents who believe it unnecessarily limits access to their children’s classrooms.
The new procedure, which was enacted Nov. 13, limits parents to one classroom observation per month for each child with a time limit of 60 minutes. Parents will also have to be accompanied by a staff member during each observation.
After discussion at the school board’s Dec. 3 policy committee meeting, the procedure may now become a policy, which would have to be approved by the full board. Possible changes to the procedure along with the possibility of it becoming a policy will be discussed at the board’s meeting on Dec. 12.
Ginger Taylor, a co-founder of the Brunswick Special Families group, is one of the parents who takes issue with the new procedure. She has two children, one of whom is autistic, in the school system.
Classroom observations can have a variety of reasons, but for Taylor they allow her to monitor the development of her autistic son.
“When I hear ‘we want to limit parent access to a child,’ to say my red flags go up is a monumental understatement,” Taylor said after attending the board’s policy committee meeting Monday night. “When you have a child who has limited verbal ability, they’re at risk because they cannot tell you if there is a problem.”
Taylor said the 15 members in her group share the same concerns about the new procedure.
“It takes a lot of detective work to figure out what is happening,” Taylor said. “Little things that a parent might pick up that teachers might not see, or a child being bullied when the teacher’s back is turned — parents need to have access to say, ‘OK, I need to figure out what’s going on.’”
Taylor said this marks another event in what she describes as a continuing “adversarial relationship” between families like hers and school administrators. She said Perzanoski and others haven’t been as helpful to her and others when it comes to making accommodations.
“We don’t have a good-faith relationship on the whole,” Taylor said. “I want to emphasize this: we have had some teachers who are wonderful and when there’s a problem with the staff, it’s the exception to the rule. It’s the administration that puts a wedge between the team members who are actually hands-on with the child.”
In a Nov. 13 letter to parents describing the new procedure, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the change came after schools started receiving increased requests for classroom observations. The school department then decided on the new procedure after consulting with its attorney.
“While the district certainly wants to maintain cooperative and collaborative relationships with parents and community providers, we must preserve and maintain the smooth operations of our schools,” Perzanoski said.
Procedures differ from policies in that administrators can enact them without consultation from the board, Perzanoski said Monday. On the other hand, policies must be approved by the board following two review sessions.
At the policy committee meeting Monday, outgoing board member Michelle Small said she is hoping to replace the procedure with a more flexible formal policy.
“It’s my belief that, rather than being a procedure, this should be a policy because it deals so much with parent interaction with the schools,” Small said. “I’d like us to try to make this into a policy and discuss various facets of it. … I guess my concern is some of these facets may be a little too rigid and we need more flexibility.”
Small said she also doesn’t like the idea of requiring a staff member to be present during observations.
Paul Austin, director of student services, said the purpose of having someone else present is to have a second set of eyes in case a problem leads to litigation against the school department.
“What do you do if there’s conflict that arises out of that?” Austin said. “What do you do if for some reason, let’s say here’s a special ed issue and you have a parent that claims that [the student's Individualized Education Program] isn’t being met … and you end up in due process over it?
“That’s why [legal counsel] will tell you to [implement this kind of procedure.] Whether I agree with it or disagree with it doesn’t matter. That’s why the attorneys will tell you it’s a good idea to have someone else present.”
Austin said later in the meeting another reason for requiring a staff member’s presence it to make it easier for parents, teachers and administrators to diagnose a student’s problems.
As a result of the Monday meeting, Perzanoski said the school department will present proposed changes to the procedure that will add more flexibility to the full board next week. He said the board will also have a chance to talk about the idea of turning the procedure into a formal policy.
Perzanoski said he has heard criticism from Taylor and other families before, and he is working to meet with them and open the lines of communication.