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Parents hope investigation will bring about change in Rowan-Salisbury Exceptional Children department

A group of parents say they hope a Rowan-Salisbury School System administrator being placed on leave and an internal investigation will bring about serious change.

Dr. Crystal Vail, director of the Exceptional Children department, was placed on paid leave a week ago pending an internal investigation. The school system has not specified what the investigation entails.

Kim Sikes and Amber Grumbles both have children with disabilities in the Rowan-Salisbury School System and are both active members of Parents with Passion and Purpose, a group of advocates for exceptional children, their parents and teachers in Rowan County.

Cathy Wilkes is also a member of Parents with Passion and Purpose. Her daughter spent five years in the Rowan-Salisbury School System but is now homeschooled because of her experience in the district, Wilkes said.

Wilkes said her problems with Vail started when she first came to the district and sent a letter home saying that parents were no longer allowed in the classroom.

“It’s just been one thing after another with her,” Wilkes said. “We’ve got a mess – we’ve got an absolute mess.”

“She has made it as difficult as she possibly can at every turn,” Sikes said.

The biggest issue the group has with the district’s Exceptional Children department under Vail’s control is the drop in the number of self-contained classrooms in the district and the rising number of students in each class.

According to the women, Vail initiated changes that doubled classroom sizes – up to 18 students of all disability levels in a single classroom with only two teachers and four assistants.

The larger class environment is too much for some of the children to handle, they said.

The idea of a self-contained classroom is to allow students with disabilities to learn in a smaller, more individualized environment. A mainstreamed classroom is where students of all ability levels are put in the same learning environment.

“Mainstreaming sounds great on paper, but it’s not good for our kids,” Grumbles said, adding that the practice puts exceptional children in classrooms with teachers who aren’t trained to teach them.

In making that change, Vail “put all the kids at a disadvantage,” Grumbles said.

Another issue is that there is little consistency for the students from year to year.

In the five years her daughter spent in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, Wilkes said, she attended six different schools.

According to Sikes, it takes exceptional children up to three years to adjust to a new environment.

“Severe students can’t learn when they’re not in their correct environment,” she said.

A shortage of trained teachers adds to the inconsistent learning environment, the parents said.

According to a list provided to the Board of Education at its last meeting, there were more than 10 adapted, resource, APEX and Occupational Course of Study vacancies at the beginning of February.

District leaders have admitted there is a shortage of exceptional children teachers in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, and the district’s human resources department is working to develop initiatives to encourage exceptional children teachers to take positions with the district.

At least one family in Parents with Passion and Purpose has filed noncompliance complaints with the state against Vail after a one-on-one aid wasn’t provided for a child whose doctor prescribed one.

According to Sikes, Grumbles and Wilkes, some parents have had to resort to a homebound education program, while others have taken their children out of the public school system altogether to homeschool them.

Grumbles said she’s especially frustrated with the lack of information she’s been given about Individual Education Plans and even college opportunities for her high-functioning daughter.

She’s also been fighting for occupational course study opportunities for more exceptional children. Although her daughter can’t read or write very well, she feels she could be trained to do simple tasks.

“They’re not given that opportunity,” Grumbles said.

As the women discussed the needs of their children and Rowan-Salisbury’s Exceptional Children Department, their first goal was clear.

“Vail needs to go,” Wilkes said, adding that the district needs an Exceptional Children director “who is actually interested” in helping these children.

They also want a parent advisory committee formed to provide input and to encourage transparency and accountability.

Not everyone agrees with their opinion of Vail.

Mark Kauffman said his son has received the utmost care since Vail took the helm of the department.

“She always had an open door and we could bring any issue to her, and it would have a response in a very timely manner,” Kauffman said.

Vail helped his son find the best fit in a classroom and an education plan that works best for him, he said.

“There are allegations that she is a bully or will not listen to you,” Kauffman said. “This is completely false. We have never had anything like this when we were talking to her.”

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