Teacher's suit alleges inadequate services, retaliation

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Over the course of two school years, Oakland Beach Elementary teacher Mary Chisholm tried – without success – to get additional special education support due to a fellow teacher in her co-taught classroom being chronically absent.

When she went over the district’s head and complained to the Rhode Island Department of Education in early March, she was forced to go on leave and remains there today.

That, at least, is the story portrayed by Chisholm’s attorneys in a complaint filed in Providence District Court on April 23.

The complaint alleges that the Warwick School Department failed to provide adequate special education services to the six students with individual education programs (IEPs) in Chisholm’s first-grade classroom, and then retaliated against her when she made a complaint to RIDE.

The nature of the suit revolves around the “collaborative classroom” teaching model utilized in Warwick, which places a general education teacher – like Chisholm – with a special education-certified teacher in order to better handle the individualized needs of students in the class. At the first-grade level, there is a teaching assistant assigned to co-taught classroom as well.

The suit alleges that between the 2017-18 school year, the special education teacher in Chisholm’s classroom was absent 68 days and, as of the time of the filing, they were absent 55 days of the current school year. These absences amounted to significant amount of missed hours of individual, specialized teaching in line with the students’ IEPs, the suit claims.

It also states that Chisholm tried numerous times over the two school years to get a substitute teacher trained in special education to cover for the absences, but one was never provided. When a substitute was provided, it was someone only trained to instruct general education students.

“In both October, 2018 and March, 2019, the Plaintiff complained to [Director of Special Services] Dr. [Jennifer] Connolly about the lack of a special education substitute in her classroom,” the complaint reads. “In response, Dr. Connolly told the Plaintiff that there was a lack of special education substitutes in Warwick and throughout the entire State of Rhode Island and that there was nothing she could do to provide assistance.”

On some occasions, the complaint states, the general education substitute was pulled out of Chisholm’s classroom to be sent on other assignments due to a lack of substitutes available in the district. When Chisholm protested by reasoning her co-taught classroom required at least two teachers, she “was told that having two teachers in her classroom was not considered a ‘priority.’”

On March 6, 2019, Chisholm told School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus that she had spoken with a RIDE official to file a complaint about her grievances. Bachus then informed Superintendent Philip Thornton, Connolly and Director of Elementary Education Lynn Dambruch.

Then, on the same day, Chisholm was visited in her classroom by Connolly and Dambruch to conduct a review on the level of services provided to one of the students with additional needs in the classroom “for approximately 20 minutes.”

“Within hours” of that analysis, Chisholm was contacted by Executive Director of Human Resources Katherine Duncanson, who asked Chisholm if she would like to placed on leave because Connolly and Dambruch “thought [Chisholm] seemed stressed and needed a few days off.” Chisholm declined, to which Duncanson allegedly responded, “Then I am putting you on administrative leave because two people made a complaint about you to DCYF [the Department of Children, Youth and Families].”

The suit states those complaints were “fabricated” and not properly investigated, and that the day after Chisholm was placed on leave, “the Defendants [Warwick Public Schools] for the first time in nearly two years assigned a substitute special education teacher to the Plaintiff’s classroom. This occurred one day after Dr. Connolly directly told the Plaintiff again that there was a shortage of special education teachers in the City, and in the entire State.”

The complaint states that the district reached out and inquired about Chisholm returning to work in a different first-grade classroom at Oakland Beach, a request that Chisholm refused.

“On March 24, 2019, the Plaintiff was told by her Union President [Darlene Netcoh] that the Defendants now did not want to have her teaching in a classroom because they have ‘grave concerns’ about her even being in a classroom,” the suit reads.

The complain alleges that Chisholm suffered from work-related stress and anxiety as well as “associated symptoms such as elevated blood pressure and difficulty breathing” due to the events it describes, which required her to seek medical attention. Chisholm is seeking back pay, compensatory damages for emotional pain, suffering and inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life.

Classroom parents support Chisholm

Jammie Boullier is the mother of one of the six students with an IEP in Chisholm’s classroom for the current school year. Meghan Simas is the mother of a general education student in the same class. On Tuesday, they both adamantly defended Chisholm and reprimanded the district for putting her on leave and failing to adequately communicate to parents what was happening.

“She has been doing this since last school year, and nothing was done since last school year,” Simas said. “She’s been complaining about the same teacher having the same amount of absences, not having a substitute or not having an adequate substitute, and it’s just carried over to this year.”

Boullier said the classroom is made more challenging for Chisholm and the other students because one student in particular has more significant behavioral issues, which leads them to hit other students, have loud outbursts and even throw desks and chairs. She said that Chisholm had been doing her best to handle the complicated situation, but was also asking for help from the district and received none.

“Since February, I have begged for support for Mary. Even this child is suffering,” Boullier said. “[They] don’t have the right services. Whatever it is, it’s affecting the entire class.”

“It’s not a safe environment for anybody,” Simas said. “I want to stress that we’re not trying to pick on this one child. [They] are definitely not getting the services that [they] need. I can’t imagine what goes through that little [child]’s mind all day. Because they’ve got to be distracted and overwhelmed and is not getting the teacher they’re supposed to be used to.”

Boullier and Simas both said the district did not communicate that Chisholm had been put on leave. They found out through their own inquiries and talking with their children about her being absent for many days in a row. They worry that, since Chisholm is gone, a revolving door of substitutes is not good for either the general education students or those with IEPs.

“None of this was communicated at all,” Simas said. “I was never notified of anything, and my child is affected just as much.”

“I want Mary Chisholm back in the room,” Boullier said. “I want the hours that are owed to my daughter … I feel that they should do the right thing. These are our kids. And you wonder why the district is moving away and people aren’t enrolling in your schools. Maybe if you got your stuff together, we wouldn’t be here now.”

Thornton said the matter was a personnel issue and he could not comment. Chisholm did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

According to the suit, Chisholm had been teaching in Warwick for nearly 29 years and has received numerous accolades, including first runner-up for Rhode Island Teacher of the Year.

Comments

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Tonilee1028

I'm sorry but this teacher is terrible. I'm not the only one who thinks so

Friday, May 3
EJWS0817

I’m a little confused as to why no one knew this was going on.... I’m a parent of an IEP child in that classroom. Letters were sent out both times there were long term absences. We were formally notified twice by letter from the director of special needs (our child came home with a letter in their folder from school) . Once in October and once in March. The letters suggested calling IEP meetings to assess impact of teacher absences and offered “compensatory” services. My husband and I called our IEP meetings to make sure our child was getting services they needed. The situation was not ideal at all but we didn’t know if there was an illness with the teacher or an illness in her family. Life happens and it’s unfortunate, but teachers are people too. My husband and I were aware and notified of every absence (by the regular educator) and there was a substitute in the classroom and there was always a TA there as well. Our IEP team has done an amazing job this year in our eyes and the special education department has been amazing considering the circumstances.

Saturday, May 4
Ben Dover

Taxpayers sue EVERYONE for inadequate services, gross financial malfeasance, and acute dumbness.

Sunday, May 5
Mike02886

It is surprising for several reasons.

1. Oakland Beach Elementary gets more money and services than any other elementary school in Warwick.

2. When there is long term Absence a sub is brought in or coverages from other teachers.

3. There seems to be more to this than what is just in print.

4. Where is the Teachers Union in this?

Sunday, May 5
Cat

Mike02886, I agree with your questions. The article only details the information from one side. There is nothing coming from the school committee or the union. I would definitely like to see a more balanced report on what is going on.

Monday, May 6
Arthas

Let me clear up your confusion for those asking. One letter was sent home regarding "compensatory"services and a meeting. Compensatory services means just what it states: services not received. Your stating you called a meeting for your child how do you know other parents did not do the same? If you were notified of every single absence of the teacher being out then that would of been many notices sent home ? How do you have the privilege to all this information about what parents received? How do you know that class was staffed with the correct teachers because it was not... that is why compensatory services are being offered. If you had such an amazing I.E.P team then why were you not informed or have knowledge of the F bomb being dropped every day.... or why were you not informed that some of our children were getting hit all the time? Sounds to me like your administration or someone close to it. Lastly why do we care what the teacher was out for? what matters is the services our children did not get during that time. Honestly the special Ed director is a joke to this district and our kids paid for it. One general ed teacher and one TA in that room you claiming otherwise is BS...wash out your eyes because the people you are defending caused a huge disservice to all of us....

Monday, May 6
James Kralicky

My Daughter was in Mrs Chisholm’s class last year. In every interaction she was nothing but compassionate and thoughtful. Being a first grade teacher is difficult enough especially with out having the help that is needed to keep the children safe and follow federal law and provide the services on a child’s IEP.

RIDE, Warwick school superintendent, Warwick school committee and the above mentioned school officials should be put on notice and suspended for failure to comply with federal law and obstruction of federal laws by removing the children’s teacher with out cause or due process related to alleged complaints to DCYF. My first career was in social work helping behaviorally challenged children and children at risk due to family situations. I had to report many unsafe households to DCYF where physical and mental abuse was occurring in a home or with an individual. A consistent reply from DCYF; “we will investigate but there is really no where to put the kids” who were in danger and/or being abused. The best we can do is let them stay in our offices at DCYF until investigations were done and dispositions were made by the court. Unsatisfactory in my opinion. How we protect the vulnerable in our city and country is a litmus test for how we are doing as a city or country. This is an epic failure of our state, and in the matter w the school epic failure across the board.

This is a very serious matter when a school system is not compliant with federal law related to education, and the whistle blowers act. This is tragic that kids are suffering bc of politics and money. Sure we are fixing bridges but are we taking care of our children who are in need. That is my question; also what kind of message have you sent the students. If you stand up to power watch out bc this is Rhode Island and if you don’t play the game you may be persecuted. Brings to mind the Scarlett Letter.

Tuesday, May 7
Happy

Sad that the only way to fix a squeaky wheel is to eliminate them....

Saturday, May 11