"A lot of our students don't have the voice to speak out, so I want someone watching. I want someone watching and asking if we're doing things the right way."

For Exceptional Student Education students Michael Schroeder and Jacey Perrotto, learning in a classroom environment is a daily battle.

Imagine, for a moment, if hearing your peers talking caused you physical pain. Or, that during periods of frustration, you involuntarily punch yourself; not to mention struggles with memory, time management, focus and organization.

Michael and Jacey, both 9 years old and on the autism spectrum, know these symptoms all too well. Stephanie Schroeder, Michael's mom, said it's especially difficult for children like her son who struggle with speech.

"We work through it all together," Schroeder said. "It's very challenging for him at times."

Exceptional Student Education (ESE) — which covers a broad range of special needs — has become a hot topic in Northwest Florida after former Kenwood Elementary teacher Marlynn Stillions was arrested in September on four felony counts of child abuse without great bodily harm involving a 4-year-old nonverbal pre-K student with autism.

Additionally, Roy Michael Frazier, a varying exceptionalities teacher at Silver Sands School, had his teaching certificate permanently revoked in June last year following a state investigation into allegations he struck students, confined them in boxes and tied them to an exercise bike with a belt.

These revelations — part of a host of serious issues currently being faced by the Okaloosa County School District — caused an outcry in the ESE community, especially from parents who feared their children could also have been victims of abuse by district employees.

"You worry because we don't know certain circumstances," Schroeder said. "Michael can't always tell us in complete sentences of what he sees and hears."

Michael currently attends Silver Sands School and, despite his mother's concerns over the abuse investigations, Schroeder said she has faith in her son's teachers.

Angie Taylor, a 15-year Navarre High School ESE teacher in Santa Rosa County, said she was happy to see the alleged abuse exposed.

"A lot of our students don't have the voice to speak out, so I want someone watching," Taylor said. "I want someone watching and asking if we're doing things the right way. I know we are [at Navarre High School], but I want to know everyone else is, too."

Jessica Perrotto, Jacey's mom, added that she applauds teachers like Taylor who strive every day to give special needs children the best educational opportunities possible. 

"I'm sure it's hard for teachers because I can't even do homework with my child," Perrotto said. "There are some times we don't even do homework because she doesn't work with me. I couldn't imagine having to sit with a whole class of [ESE] students."

'They work hard'

The certified ESE teacher-to-student ratio varies throughout the school districts along the Emerald Coast. Okaloosa County currently has 374 certified ESE teachers and about 5,213 ESE students. Those numbers do not include students who are gifted.

In Walton County, there are approximately 1,284 students and 148 teachers. In Santa Rosa County, there are approximately 4,047 ESE students and 457 teachers.

On Feb. 22, Taylor taught a classroom of eight students with varying disabilities ranging from autism and cerebral palsy to traumatic brain damage.

Students began their day by checking off a list of completed hygiene questions, like putting on deodorant, combing their hair, washing their faces and more. If students had not completed the task, Taylor and her team would assist them in the bathroom equipped with all the necessary products.

During class time, Taylor and her staff teach students independent self-care, how to identity their emotions and perform household chores in a fully-equipped kitchen within the classroom.

Taylor also had another unique feature installed into her classroom — a corner of padded walls to guide students towards when they begin to self-harm. 

Taylor said what the public may not understand about special needs students is that they also follow the same curriculum as neurotypical students, just adapted. They aren't, as stereotypes may suggest, coloring and being babysat, she and her teacher's aide said.

"They work hard," Taylor said. "What is different is that general education teachers usually have their students for just one year, we have our students for sometimes 10 years. We are a family."

Special needs students, Taylor explained, are allowed to attend high school until the day before their 22nd birthday.

Navarre High School, which is similar to other public schools in Northwest Florida, has three ESE classrooms ranging from students who need the most critical care, to those who are working to merge with neurotypical students in an immersion classroom.

The immersion classrooms, Taylor said, always have an ESE aide to make sure the special education students are given what their individualized education programs instruct — like more time on a test or help taking notes.

Florida law requires that each ESE student be given an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which spells out the student's present education level, their goals, needs and what the school will provide to the child. Parents and any school personnel who help care for the student are present for each IEP meeting, which are an annual requirement.

The IEP also includes a behavioral plan for students who might struggle with aggression or self-harm. ESE teachers are in charge of tracking student progress and sending it to the Department of Education.

Taylor said the amount of paperwork, which she tracks throughout the day on her tablet, is extensive.

'They feel supported'

Not all ESE students, however, are educated in public schools.

The Emerald Coast Autism Center, a non-profit organization, offers each student their own private therapist and teacher. The student's educational program and placement is determined by his or her cognitive, verbal and behavioral levels. 

Emerald Coast Autism Center founders Heidi Blalock and Staci Berryman said the one-on-one concept allows students a better opportunity to overcome their symptoms.

"Every student here has a 1-to-1 ratio and that's not something that the public schools are able to do," Berryman said. "It takes the staff and it takes the training. It's an expensive undertaking. In public school, you might have a classroom of 10 students, whereas here you have one student with one teacher."

Blalock said she believes thoroughly training ESE teachers on how to handle and work with students is most important.

"The fact that we are so heavily laden with professional people, we are easily able to train people on the spot," Blalock said. "We train for 4-to-6 weeks and they have to pass an evaluation system. We have set our bar extremely high because we don't want there to be mistakes with kids. They feel supported and there is no guess work."

Similarly, Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville offers an educational concept in between public schools and the Emerald Coast Autism Center.

Superintendent Michael Mosley said because public schools don't turn students away and have a state controlled budget, it's not feasible for them to offer the same resources as private schools. Rocky Bayou Christian School, unlike a public school, is able to turn away students if staff feel they cannot meet their needs.

"We have six special services classrooms," said Rachel Furlong, special services principal. "It's really a calling. I think all teachers are called to teach, but to work with children like these who struggle, it's an extra measure of calling. The challenges you face are, and what makes it so fun, is an ongoing process of trying to figure out what to do to help them. Stuff the students may understand one day, they might forget the next day. It's about seeing where they are every day and trying to move them forward to the next step."

Rocky Bayou Christian School, according to Furlong, practices hands-on learning instead of lectures with their special needs students. Furlong said they have 10-to-15 students in each classroom and focus on small group activity.

'Focus on mental health'

And still, there are some parents with special needs students who feel any form of classroom environment is not the right fit for their children.

Kelsey McCabe of DeFuniak Springs said she decided to home school her 8-year-old daughter, Leila, to allow more time for physical therapy and hands-on learning.

"Just being around crowds or a group of kids was physically taxing for Leila," McCabe said. "With her diagnosis, she doesn't show a lot of expression, like express happiness. Sometimes when she came home from school, she didn't even talk to us.

"Toward the end she became so disruptive that she was with anyone that would take her. I felt she wasn’t learning what she needed to be learning. The obvious answer was to take a break from that and focus on mental health."

While still attending school, McCabe said Leila was scared of going outdoors, including her own backyard. As part of her home-school program, the McCabes began researching butterfly gardens and, miraculously, Leila's interest was piqued.

"It was super successful because she got to learn about what she wants to learn about," McCabe said. "She had to pick out plants for her butterfly garden and buy the plants. Then, we moved on to an herb garden."

While attending a summer camp last year, Leila was taught about woodpeckers and she became obsessed with birds, too.

"Her life is all about birds now," McCabe said. "She is an expert of birds and butterflies. Home schooling gives us the freedom to maximize time focusing on the much-needed therapies she needs, in addition to being able to tailor her curriculum to her interests and needs."

McCabe said she wants other autism parents to know that home schooling is a great option and, through grants like the "Gardiner Scholarship," it's practical and affordable.

The Gardiner Scholarship program provides home-schooled students — in addition to other qualifications — with special needs scholarships to use for speech or occupational therapy, instructional materials, tuition at an eligible private school, contributions to a college prepaid account and more.

"So far, this scholarship has covered her equine-assisted therapy, costs our insurance didn't cover with behavioral therapy, sensory furniture and other sensory items, and her entire educational curriculum for her second grade year," McCabe said. "I find it baffling when individuals are told they can't home school their special needs child if we have a state-funded grant accessible just for that purpose."