What difference does five or 10 minutes make in a school day? Not much, right? Not so fast, judging by a civil rights complaint against one of Oregon’s largest school districts. The allegations target Beaverton’s school system, and when special education students board the bus bound for home.
Seven minutes before the final bell of the day is set to ring, small yellow school buses wait outside of Beaver Acres Elementary School. The buses are for students with special needs.
A side door opens, and teachers escort a number of students to the waiting buses. By the time the final bell rings at 3:05 p.m., the big buses have just arrived, and the little special-ed buses have pulled out.
A recent civil rights complaint filed against the Beaverton School District says early dismissals such as these happen routinely at 24 Beaverton schools.
The issue involves students who might be on the autism spectrum, or have medical or psychological difficulties. Like Louis Feldman’s sons, these special education students spend at least part of their school day in “self-contained” classrooms, meaning separate from other students.
Feldman first noticed early dismissals at meetings with his son’s teachers.
“The kids would be lined up, right by the bus, to get on the bus, at 2:55 (p.m.). So that means they’ve lost at least 10 minutes, plus the time to walk down there,” Feldman said. “Some teachers have said ‘that’s garbage time, we’re generally just packing our bags, and wrapping up for the day,’ but I’ve also seen where the PE class was still going on, at the time that the buses are pulling out.”
The attorney on the complaint, Diane Wiscarson, said the early dismissals add up. “If you think about your child missing 10 or 15 minutes of school, every single day of school. You add that up over time - you know, 30, 40 hours a year,” she said.
Wiscarson said it’s been going on for years. She said she suspects it’s a problem in much of Oregon, but Beaverton is the only district she’s documented. She said she agrees with early dismissal, if it’s best for the student. But she said it’s a problem when the policy affects all students in self-contained classrooms.
“The only way you can be in a self-contained classroom is to have a disability. General ed kids aren’t dismissed early. TAG (talented and gifted) kids aren’t dismissed early. Just special ed,” she said. “The law says you may not discriminate against people on the basis of their disability.”
Wiscarson and Feldman said the early dismissals deprive students of social interaction with other students and may mean being excluded from after-school activities.
Beaverton school officials declined interview requests, saying they “will not comment on this case while it is under investigation.”
Feldman said he’s observed dismissals as much as 15 minutes early, but it was different on a recent visit to Walker Elementary. The special education students exited the building right after the 3:05 dismissal bell rang.
“They came out after the bell,” Feldman said. “Doesn’t mean they weren’t lined up inside the building, because they came out right at 3:05.”
Feldman pressed the district on the early dismissals more than a year ago. He recalled what he asked a top administrator at the time.
” ‘So who’s really in charge — you, or the transportation department?’ She said ‘I am.’ We said ‘really, then why are the kids leaving early?’ “
According to Feldman, the administrator said, “That doesn’t happen.”
“And her own assistant chimed in and said ‘oh, you should go to — this particular school — where she’d just come from working — ‘because it happens every day.’ ” Feldman said. “And she (the administrator) turned gray.”
Wiscarson and Feldman said that some parents have at times negotiated later dismissal times that keep special needs kids in class until the bell rings. But Feldman isn’t satisfied with a case-by-case negotiation.
Sitting in his living room, waiting for his son to come home, Feldman called the plight of special ed students the civil rights issue of our time.
“These kids are separate, and in theory, equal,” he said. “Except that they’re not.”
The complaint is now in the hands of the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Beaverton officials said they’re responding to requests for information and documents.