Trussville household goes public with struggle for correct training for blind daughter and all college students
By Erica Thomas, editor-in-chief
TRUSSVILLE – A Trussville family has gone public in battle for their special needs daughter and all Trussville City Schools (TCS) students.
James and Chanel Thomas said that over the years they have felt that their daughter, who is blind, has been exposed to unnecessary harm that could affect their learning and that of other students. Although others warned them of the challenges they may face, they said they have always tried to work with the school system to make sure their daughter gets the things she needs. These basic needs, they say, are not being met. Now the Thomas family is talking about issues they allegedly identified.
Sarah Thomas recently started school at Hewitt-Trussville Middle School, having been in the school system from elementary school. The family said that each year of her education, Sarah faced issues that she shouldn’t be worried about. Some of these issues include technology that might otherwise make her successful and communication between her parents and school management. It wasn’t until the family had problems with Sarah’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) this year that they realized the problem went well beyond their daughter’s education.
In developing an IEP for a student, Trussville City Schools provides a team of general education teachers, special education teachers, specialists, parents and school administrators. This team then meets to discuss what action needs to be taken for each student to ensure free, adequate public education (FAPE). The Thomas’, however, said their plan was never sufficient or on time.
That year, Chanel Thomas took to Facebook after realizing her daughter wouldn’t have an IEP before school started. Both Chanel and James have informed their followers on Facebook about their challenges via live streams. Chanel Thomas said she has received numerous complaints from parents, teachers and former TCS employees since the live stream that she believes should be heard.
“I have tons of people who have contacted us and asked us to move on, but we need support,” said Chanel Thomas. “But a lot of them are teachers and are afraid of losing their jobs, so I get that.”
The Thomas’ said they eventually received an incomplete IEP and would have to go back to the drawing board with the school system to get it right. At that point, they said that the school system still does not follow the IEP.
“In this case, she should have time with her eye teacher (VI) five days a week,” said James Thomas. “It’s 30 minutes a day because she has to do several things, so 30 minutes, five days a week. We got an email this morning that said, ‘Hey, we have your VI three days a week.’
James Thomas said the reason why five days a week is important to Sarah is because she is not doing well to summarize this type of class and it is important for her to spread it out over the week.
Another problem that the Thomas recognized concerns the number of IEP students in each class.
“Best practices show that with IEPs, you distribute students evenly among all teachers,” said James Thomas. “So typically you have two IEP students in inclusive institutions. Sometimes you have to come to three or four, but Trussville City Schools group IEP children in blocks. “
James Thomas said that having too many students with IEP can affect every student in a classroom, not just those with special needs.
“If that were just Sarah, we’d still be fighting a private fight,” explained James Thomas. “We went public because we know it’s such a big topic. It affects all of these children. “
The family believes that teachers at the school are understaffed and underserved. When they tried to provide their own technology for their daughter, they say they were rejected.
Trussville City Schools responded to multiple media inquiries regarding Sarah’s education and the claims of the Thomas family. While unable to comment on individual students, public relations director Jason Gaston said school departments are open to providing technology when the need arises.
One of those devices that the Thomas family had a problem with was a CCTV magnifying glass and another was a BrailleNote Touch. The Thomas’ said they had offered to deliver the equipment but encountered resistance.
“The BrailleNote Touch is basically your computer,” explained James Thomas. “She had to use Perkins Brailler, a heavy old school Goliath machine that is very noisy.”
James Thomas said when Sarah was in elementary school, she was put in the hallway because the teacher said the machine was distracting other students. He said that after they offered to provide a better device, he didn’t understand why there was a problem.
“Every child can take their smartphone to school, but my child can’t take it with them?” Asked James Thomas.
Eventually, the Thomas’ won their battle for Sarah to have the device.
“It took an act of Congress and almost a full school year to get it,” added James Thomas.
According to Gaston, the school system has dedicated equipment for visually impaired students, including a state-of-the-art embossing printer, art video magnifiers, art brailling keyboards, various brailling devices, CCTVs, braille curriculum for individual needs and mobility aids.
The family also said they had previously asked to start a special needs booster program, similar to a band booster, but they were denied that request as well. The school did not officially respond to this claim, but said that with so many changes in staff over the years, some requests may have been lost in communication.
Overall, James and Chanel Thomas said they expected the year to start differently as their daughter moved to a different school.
“We were assured by the school system that they would all have their teachers, that they would have everything ready for them by early June so that Sarah could go to school and study as often as she wanted over the summer.” Routes, “explained James Thomas. “And they said they planned everything well, but then we were there, the week before school started, and we were told it would be a couple of weeks before their schedule was even set.”
The Thomas’ want to see a change in strategy and they want a consistent special education program that they believe is important not just for special needs students but for all students in general.
“When people told us to file a lawsuit, I just didn’t think it was right because it would take more money out of the school system. And so we’re just lost, ”said Chanel Thomas. “I want her [Sarah] to be in society and be a functioning citizen. I want her to be a taxpayer citizen. If you don’t raise her, she won’t make it. I feel that everything is due to the lack of support from the teachers. “
Chanel Thomas said one of the hardest things her family had to deal with was the fact that their daughter was provided with an assistant where she had no experience working with the visually impaired.
“This is the one year that I thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to have someone who knows what they’re doing,” explained Chanel Thomas. “But then I found out who it was and I knew the girl didn’t know about being around a blind person. They bring these helpers off the road without any training. It’s a security problem! “
Gaston said the school system is doing a “thorough screening process for any potential employee who wants to join Trussville City Schools.”
James and Chanel Thomas are also concerned that Sarah’s success in school is being misrepresented.
“The point is, if you look at her education and her IEP which says she must be kept to the standard of her peers, she just got A’s, but if you test her now I guarantee you she won’t even she has a colleague, ”said James Thomas. “You’re just giving her ace.”
The two Thomas say that it is not about the grades Sarah makes, but about the level of mastery of the content that is achieved.
Gaston responded to allegations of disagreements with the following statement:
“While we cannot speak to a specific person, we recommend that anyone with such concerns contact the school administration,” Gaston said.
While the Thomas’ said Sarah was directly affected by the actions of the school system, they believe teachers and all other students are also affected.
The school system reacted again to concerns about special needs education.
“We love and care for all of our students,” said Gaston. “We are particularly well prepared for special needs education to train pupils of all disability categories. The state disability categories include learning disabilities, developmental delays, visual impairments, hearing impairments, speech impairments, emotional disorders, and others. There are special processes to ensure high quality education for students with special needs. “
When it comes to IEPs, Gaston said these plans need to be implemented in a number of ways.
“Decisions for students with disabilities are recorded in IEPs at an IEP team meeting,” said Gaston. “This is the clear process for two-way communication between the school and parents, and changes to an IEP can be made at any time. Parents are made aware of all rights to which they are entitled under the IDEA (Law on the Education of Persons with Disabilities). We have dedicated educators across the school system who continuously work together to ensure the integrity of the IEPs, which in turn enables an ongoing focus on student success. “
Again, TCS does not publish any information on specific students with an IEP, although Gaston said parents are welcomed and encouraged to be part of the process.
The Thomas family has compiled a petition and plan to file a formal complaint against TCS with the State Board of Education. While they are grateful for the prayers and support offered to them online, their primary hope is that all Trussville City Schools students receive the best education and opportunities possible.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this article, Erica Thomas, is not related to James and Chanel Thomas and did not know the Thomas family prior to the interview that was conducted for this story.