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We want our children to be a priority: Parent of GRPS Special Education student speaks out

May 3, 2018

The following interview was recently conducted with Brenda Bierens, a parent of a special education student in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Bierens is also a member of the Disability A-Team and Community Collaborative.

As a parent of a Special Education student, what is your experience with GRPS and why are you calling for the removal of Laura LaMore?

Parents have been meeting and discussing problems with special education at GRPS for well over a year. Issues like IEP’s being changed without parents knowledge, students being placed in programs that do not meet their needs putting both their teachers and their peers at risk, adult students being transferred to a school that was designed for preschoolers putting them at risk for injury, Services being denied or cut from students IEP’s a staggering rates, I could go on and on but in December the teachers at CTC Straight went to the GREA and MEA about the school they had just been moved into this year to ask for help. It was the new home to adult students with disabilities ages 18-26, yet the school was designed for preschoolers so everything was knee high, it had fire, health and building code violations and had been vacant for sometime. The fire department never even knew straight Street school was occupied until an anonymous call went to them. They also asked for parents from the district to be involved in bringing these problems to light. When the MEA started talking to parents they found major problems district wide. Teachers were being directed to do thing they didn’t feel good about by administration, there was a fear of retaliation, and GRPS special education as a whole had changed dramatically since the arrival of Laura Lamore. Parents had gone to Mrs. Lamore with concerns and felt they were either ignored or intimidated. With the complaints from both teachers and parents, the GREA and MEA had decided the best coarse of action was the ask for the removal of the director of special education and the petition was born. 847 teachers and staff members and over 500 parents and community members signed the petition asking Superintendent Neal and the Board of Education to remove Laura Lamore from her seat as the Director of Special Education for Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

What kind of support is there from teachers and other parents on the removal of Laura LaMore?

The Board of Education responded to our petition by saying they did not have the authority to remove Mrs. Lamore and Supt. Neal responded by saying we were just a small group who don’t like change and the allegations against the district were either resolved or false. She called the petition against Mrs. Lamore a ‘smear campaign’ and said Laura is a member of her cabinet, a trusted member and she will not remove Mrs.Lamore.

As a parent the major reason I’m calling for Laura’s removal is because my sons IEP was changed, without my knowledge in 2016. His program was changed and absolutely no one from administration explained to any parents why it was happening. It wasn’t just my sons IEP that was changed to reflect the change in programming it was every students in my sons program. When I found out, 9 months after the facts I was lied to, it was blamed on me, the responsibility was passed from person to person until finally, it came out that it was a direct order from Laura Lamore to change these students IEP’s quietly, and staff members did it because they feared for their jobs. This is not anything new or unique, this sort of thing happens often at GRPS and the threat and fear of retaliation is real. For the most part most parents would say the staff at Grand Rapids is wonderful, but the administration is dirty, sneaky and willing to cut services off the backs of special education students to make their district look good in the eyes of Betsy DeVos. Many people including myself feel our children are not wanted at GRPS because they don’t make the district ‘look good’, my son will not graduate with a diploma, rather a certificate of completion because of his disability preventing him from meeting minimum high school requirements. We have been told by the administration that our kids ‘hurt the district because they bring down their graduation rate numbers’, but what they are not telling people is they are finding sneaky ways around that too. I have proof in his IEP…

As a whole less and less parents, with special education students, trust the administration at GRPS and feel that due to Betsy DeVos’s involvement, special education is slowly but surely being dismantled, and these “Theme” schools closely resemble charter schools, where there is no place for special education.

What does the school district need to do to make guarantees that whoever replaces LaMore that there will be better oversight and transparency?

Parents want just a few things from a special ed director, no crazy or outlandish demands. They want someone who is transparent, listens and makes each child’s needs and education is a priority. Most parents are understanding and if they know why changes are happening and what they can do about it they will work with the district instead of against them. Parents want to have a say, as a part of their child’s IEP team they want to know that their opinion counts in the child’s education, and that isn’t happening now because Mrs. Lamore is dictating what will be done and when, and parents don’t know why or when it happens. Parents want a special ed director that will allow the teachers and staff  to do their jobs and make recommendations based on an individual basis, educational plan’s should reflect goals and objective that will suit the student, not the district and that is not always happening. Parents want a Special Education Director that see’s our kids as students that have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, not problems for the district.

What do you think about the relationship between Teresa Neal and Betsy DeVos?

When the petition to remove Laura Lamore failed the GREA and MEA kind of fizzled out of the fight, leaving 847 teachers and staff disappointed and without change. Parents were very angry by the way the district was representing us and unwilling to hear our concerns. We started looking at the budget as a whole and noticed insanely high administration costs and a close connection to Betsy DeVos. It became evident that GRPS is a model school for Betsy DeVos and she is really leading this district. Paying for Superintendent Neal to get $67,000 of ‘training’, and inviting her to the confirmation hearings made many of us question why the media hasn’t asked more questions. Regardless the refusal to remove Laura Lamore, administration costs, connections to a Secretary of Education that is not only dismantling special education but public education as a whole is why I support the petition to fire Theresa Neal. 

Do you think this is an effective tactic, calling for Neal’s removal?

I don’t know yet, we are just getting started.

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