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Nine-year-old Wesley Clark is a fourth-grader at PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights. He and his family were recently profiled in the New York Post, which described PS 8 as a “supposedly progressive” public school “that talks a good game about inclusion but is purposely neglecting their child to try to get him to leave.”
Could this be true? Bewildered, I gave Wesley’s mom, Kim Williams Clark, a call. She was generous with her time and her story. First I asked her to describe Wesley, who has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. Here’s what she said:
Our son is a loving child with a disability who has been thriving academically and socially in inclusive classrooms since he was a toddler and, while we’ve hurdled over our share of bureaucratic obstacles, no school has ever tried to push our son out the door. After all, federal law requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” and for Wesley that environment is his neighborhood elementary school.
Here is an edited version of our conversation.
What were the first obstacles you faced in your efforts to secure an inclusive education for Wesley?
Early on, we lived in New York City, and when Wesley was just shy of one-year old, my ex-husband, Lee Wesley Clark, Esq., and I enrolled him in a nationally known daycare center. Wesley was in the infant room with typically-developing babies.
One day I got a call from a daycare staffer, who told me that after dropping off Wesley to return earlier than usual and “go straight to the basement.” The basement? When I went downstairs, there was Wesley, sitting alone with a receptionist, totally isolated from the other children. It was horrible.
As a lawyer, you want to sue. As a parent, you want to cry. It was at that moment our lives were forever changed. When I looked at Wesley, I saw a loving child who with supports could achieve great things. But others’ perceptions were vastly different.
What did you do?
Eventually, we moved to New Jersey and found a daycare that treated Wesley like they treated “every other child.” True to its name, the Hoboken School is called A Whole New World Academy. At age four, we enrolled him in the Ben Samuels Children’s Center, an inclusion school located on the campus of Montclair State University, where all the teachers and therapists are trained in cohesive inclusive practices. Wesley just flourished. He started to read and write.
After aging out of that program Wesley attended our local public school in Montclair where he was placed in a general education classroom with full inclusive supports. Thereafter, he transitioned to an integrated inclusion classroom staffed by both a general education teacher and a special education teacher and he excelled academically and socially.
And so Wesley had appropriate services that allowed him to be educated with his typical peers. You are so committed to integrated classrooms that you even founded a non-profit to advocate for inclusive practices, right?
Yes, we hope to change the way that Wesley and children with disabilities are treated, so they will be able to obtain the inclusive services that they are entitled to. In order to make this happen I started Inclusion Works. Our services include Inclusive, Diversity & Educational Activism supports for youth of all abilities, parent roundtables, disability support, and teacher training. It has partnered with a variety of community organizations in New Jersey, New York and abroad, including Montclair State University, Mountainside Hospital Speech & Language Clinic, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) to provide CEU’s to educators, New Jersey Coalition of Inclusive Education (NJCIE), NJAPE Inclusive Movement Center, Kidville, YMCA, JHS 62 and Education First in Shenzhen, China.
Why did you leave Montclair?
Upon learning about inclusive programs in Brooklyn, we decided to go back to our Brooklyn roots. Wesley was eight years old and the timing seemed right. We specifically chose Brooklyn Heights because the neighborhood school there, PS 8, has a program called Integrated Collaborative Teaching that, like in Montclair, uses a model of team-teaching with a general education teacher and a special education teacher working together to meet student needs. Everything seemed fine. When we enrolled, we turned over Wesley’s IEP [Individualized Education Plan, a federally-mandated document for children with disabilities] from Montclair because, by law, PS 8 has to provide comparable services until implementation of a new IEP.
And that’s when things went bad.
What went wrong?
We’ve been waiting over one year for an IEP, which is supposed to be completed within sixty days from enrollment. Wesley hasn’t received any academic support. Pursuant to his plan, he is entitled to weekly math, reading and writing support. The school has refused to implement the services. When we complained about the lack of supports at PS 8, in retaliation the school district initiated an impartial hearing action against us. This action was immediately dismissed.
Wesley is non-verbal but he communicates with an augmentative communication device and through sign language [ASL]. Yet his device is not used properly during the school day and the school has neglected to schedule training for the support team. Also, in violation of his New Jersey IEP, there is no ASL teacher for him.
Wesley is entitled to receive speech therapy but we were advised upon enrollment that the therapist “wasn’t available.” So I had to pay privately for a speech therapist to sit in his class with him weekly to enhance his classroom participation and communication. Finally, the school issued a voucher for ongoing private services, although I didn’t get any reimbursement. Further crucial therapeutic supports were excessively delayed.
It’s so disappointing that in 2018 some folks are still intolerant of children with disabilities. These children didn’t choose the disability; the disability chose them. As parents, it’s a constant struggle to obtain services. What is most egregious for us is that the services we’re asking PS 8 and the New York City Department of Education to provide for Wesley are already in his IEP and the DOE’s Comparable Service Plan. Yet the school is refusing to give them to us. That’s illegal!
What prompted you to bring Wesley’s story to the media?
We need help and we believe that there are other parents who may have similar experiences. We also would like to encourage people to join us in our Fight for Wesley! We would like school districts to be more sensitive to the needs of children with disabilities nationally and worldwide.
In this instance, Wesley needs a one-on-one paraprofessional aide [para] to manage his needs. We had a wonderful one who compensated for the school’s failings. But then the school and the Principal Patricia Peterson moved her for “budgetary reasons.” Wesley was assigned a new para. One day I went to pick up Wesley from the after-school program and I was stopped by one of his classmates who told me that Wesley seemed very sad and his eyes had been teary all day. I asked Wesley if he was happy but he didn’t respond. Then the children told me that Wesley’s para is “mean to him.” They observed her dragging him up several flights of stairs and squeezing him under his armpits and he was squealing in pain. They indicated that she mocks Wesley and more.
I should point out that, as a result of Wesley’s Down Syndrome, he has a heart condition. And so he has a doctor’s note that says he should use the elevator because he gets winded and needs to take breaks on stairs. And now we have this para who is actually assaulting him.
Then why do you still want Wesley to remain at PS 8? And why do you think that the school is trying to push him out and place him in a more restrictive setting?
PS 8 is the highest-rated district school and the only inclusive school right in our Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. There’s a sign at the school that says there’s “No Place for Hate.” I don’t know if the school realizes that by discriminating against a child with a disability they are creating a place for hate. We want to change this. I still want Wesley there. He has a wonderful cohort of children around him who are loving and protective. There are great parents there and a good therapy team.
We have been asked by school district officials to consider transferring Wesley. We suggested that the leadership consider transferring to another school – because our child is entitled to a public education! The above official admitted that the school has access to the academic supports needed for Wesley to excel – but they are resistant to providing them.
I’ve been told that last year parents filed a Notice of Claim against the school for a similar occurrence and a separate parent filed a claim regarding bullying allegations. It follows that PS 8 may have a history of pushing out children with disabilities. I also learned that other PS 8 parents of disabled children have simply relocated to other private schools. It’s been a challenge for us.
We’re so tired of being pushed around. We’re tired of being bullied.
The easiest thing for me would be to say, “I quit.” But I can’t quit on Wesley, this sweet and wonderful child. He is smart, artistic, computer-literate, and has so many gifts: a great memory, a great sense of direction, just a pleasure to be around. He doesn’t deserve this. As long as I have breath, I will fight for his right to be included because I see how he thrives, learns and lights up when he’s around his friends. They don’t have the right to take away his light! Many of the children and their parents have expressed great appreciation that Wesley is a member of the school community.
As of today, we are still awaiting academic services, communication supports and compensatory service entitlements in excess of 200 hours (one year) for Wesley. Based upon release of our story to the media, I have just learned the school has is now requesting that Wesley be removed from inclusion and placed in a restrictive placement. Our goal is to ensure that Wesley receives his service entitlements in an inclusive environment. We are sharing our story because we know that other parents may be suffering in silence. If you are out there, “WE STAND WITH YOU! To the educators, we ask you to “STAND WITH US” in our struggle toward equity and access to a quality inclusive education for youth of all abilities!