FORT WALTON BEACH — After a week of meeting with parents of special needs children across Okaloosa County School District, Superintendent Marcus Chambers said there is a lot of information for his administration to consider.
“This is a complex topic, and there’s a lot to do,” Chambers said at an ESE parent meeting on Thursday held at Elliott Point Elementary School. “I think there is a lot that we do right in Okaloosa County … but there is still a lot that we can do much better.”
Last week, Chambers, along with Elementary Curriculum Director Jeff Palmer and Exceptional Student Education Program Director Melody Summer, met with parents in the north, middle and south ends of Okaloosa County. They also held the first official meeting with the ESE Parent Advisory Council.
Okaloosa County School District's ESE programs have been under fire since August 2017, when ESE parent Eddie Perillo came forward with information that his autistic son had been abused while attending an Okaloosa County school. The information led to a series of investigations and lawsuits ultimately ending in eight school district employee arrests and the suspension of OCSD Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson earlier this year.
“I think Mr. Chambers' hope is to get good suggestions and advice from this group about how we can improve all instruction but in particular ESE instruction in the district,” Palmer said of the meetings. “I think some training for our general education and ESE teachers is something that we are planning to look into significantly.”
At Thursday’s ESE parent meeting at Elliott Point, 13 parents shared their concerns with the district's ESE programs.
Of those concerns, four common themes emerged: a need for ESE training for general education teachers, a request for more ESE specialists to be added to school staff, a desire for an expedited process in assessing the needs of ESE students and a suggestion for optional parent training so that parents can learn what programs are available for their children.
At the close of Thursday’s meeting, Chambers assured parents that he and his staff are committed to improving the ESE programs within the district, but, he shared the changes will take time to implement.
“Everything won’t be better at the end of this school year in terms of the concerns that you have,” Chambers said. “Some of these things are going to take two years until it’s consistent. We are going to be focused on this stuff, but it’s not going to change overnight. However, I will say, you will see some significant changes next year, I do believe that.”
ESE parent Chrystal Ramer, who is also an ESE teacher at Kenwood Elementary School, said that she came away from Thursday's meeting feeling hopeful.
“I’m hoping that we can continue with the mindset that Mr. Chambers has set, with transparency and moving forward in a positive direction with ESE within the district as a whole,” Ramer said. “I’m walking out of here feeling empowered that there was a platform for us to express our concerns, and excited for what the next year and the year after that holds for my daughter moving on to middle and high school.”
Another ESE parent, Patrick Stanley, said the meetings show that the school district really is serious about listening to the concerns of parents, and he hopes the same will go for addressing and absolving them.
“It’s a stepping stone,” Stanley said. “I think the whole ESE program here has got a bad rap with a couple of bad situations.
"I think in the long run, there are a lot of good people who want to help our kids, and hopefully it gets better.”