Mary Ellen Meindl, the president of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education has rebuffed a request from some parents to form a special committee to conduct a review of the district’s special education program.

The request for a special committee to review special education in District 96 was first made last April, then reiterated in a September memo and finally made publicly at the Nov. 15 school board meeting when three parents spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting and delivered petitions with about 150 signatures to the school board asking for committee to be formed.

Three days later Meindl responded by email to Cindy Reynolds, one of the leaders of the effort to form the committee. Meindl said the request for a board committee to review special education was not approved at this time.

Instead of creating a special committee of parents, administrators, board members and teachers, Meindl says the school board’s education committee would look at special education in the district and determine how to proceed.

“It needs to happen in the education committee,” Meindl told the Landmark. “It is an education committee conversation. The education committee will do a detailed discussion to figure out what needs to be evaluated. We do plan to evaluate the special ed program in the school district.”

Concerns raised by critics of the special education program include communication between the district and parents and a perception among some parents that children are put too quickly into self-contained special education classrooms.

The topic of special education will be discussed at the next meeting of the education committee, Meindl said.

“In January, the education committee will be continuing the discussion on special education,” Meindl said at the Nov. 15 school board meeting.

Reynolds and another parent, Rory Dominick, have been pushing since April for the creation of a special committee to review special education in District 96. Reynolds said she was disappointed with Meindl’s response.

“It’s very disappointing especially because we tried to keep everything positive,” Reynolds said.

In September, following a meeting with District 96 Superintendent Jonathon Lamberson, District 96 Director of Special Education Mary Polk and education committee chairwoman Jennifer Leimberer, Reynolds and Dominick sent a detailed six-page memo to Leimberer, Lamberson and Polk outlining their request for a special committee.

They asked that a five-year strategic plan be created to deal with special education.  They described current special education practices in District 96 as “at times problematic, inadequate and in some instances subject to legal liability,” according to a copy of the memo provided to the Landmark.

Reynolds and Dominick have many concerns about the special education program.

“If we had to choose, we’d like to see some attention paid to communication and least-restrictive environment,” said Dominick, the mother of a District 96 kindergarten student with special needs.

Dominick said that while her son is doing well this year and has a one-to-one aide, it was a struggle to get the right placement for him. Eventually she had to hire an education advocate.

“It was just a rough process and I found there to be a lack of communication,” Dominick said.

Dominick said she has discovered that many parents have had concerns over the years with how District 96 treats special education students.

“We’re getting frustrated,” Dominick said. “They’ve been hearing this over and over and over from other parents. There have been many parent groups that have gone to Lamberson and Polk before and said you’ve got to fix some things. I don’t know why nobody seems to care.”

Dominick said she does not expect immediate change and knows that special education is a complicated issue.

“We’re not expecting change to come tomorrow,” Dominick said. “We’ve been asking for this since April.”

Meindl said she agrees that special education needs to be looked at.

“It is time to evaluate and figure out are we doing everything we can do to provide a fair and reasonable education in every area of special education and that’s what we’re doing,” Meindl said. “A special education program review is on the education committee’s agenda and they will be discussing parameters and information required to determine, with parental input, how best to review the program. I anticipate the education committee will make a recommendation to the board, no later than its last meeting of the 2011-12 school year, on how best to review the special education program.”

Leimberer said she agrees that the education committee is the right venue to examine the issue.

“I think that’s the place to start,” Leimberer said. “For a committee to work they need data. And unfortunately with things revolving around special education there are privacy rules involved. You can’t share that data.”

She said the education committee will try to decide what to do.

“It will be on our agenda in January,” Leimberer said. “In the end it might turn out that it’s really an administrative task and the administration needs to figure out what to do. … We need to figure out what questions we need to ask, what information we need to look at.”

Reynolds and Dominick were frustrated when most of the time devoted to special education at the education committee’s Nov. 8 meeting was given to a district lawyer, who began to give a detailed review of special education law until being stopped by Leimberer after about 20 minutes.

“There was no response to our memo as far as I was concerned,” Reynolds said. “Every kind of message we’ve gotten from the board is that, unless it gets uncomfortable for them not to do this, they won’t agree to this.”

At the Nov. 15 school board meeting Leimberer told the parents that the school board often moves slowly and to have patience.

“The process for a board is slow,” Leimberer said. “There is a bunch of us and we have to reach consensus.”