Del Mar parents oppose reduction of special education positions

Del Mar Union School District administration office.
Del Mar Union School District administration office.
(Staff photo)

Del Mar Union School District special education parents are pushing back on a decision made at the February board meeting approving the layoffs of classified staff members due to lack of work. Among the layoffs were five behavioral support interventionists, a position that provides support for teachers and all students.

During public comment at the Feb. 16 meeting, Sage Canyon teacher Michelle Chavez said, behavioral support interventionists (BSIs) are a critical component of the learning team as the district works toward the goal of full inclusion in general education classes for students with special needs.

For the record:

12:02 p.m. March 24, 2022A previously published version of this article stated part of a BSI’s job is writing behavior and intervention plans which is not accurate. The BSIs compile and graph student data and assist with behavior incident report write-ups.

“(BSIs) work with any child whose behavior is affecting their ability to learn in class and they have specific training on how to use evidence-based techniques for the prevention and de-escalation of student behaviors in order to build a safe school environment where all kids can learn,” Chavez said.

“The services BSIs provide are crucial for a properly functioning school,” echoed parent David Greenfield. “Eliminating the position does not eliminate the need for them but instead shifts the responsibilities of managing student behaviors onto the general education teachers and staff, thus impacting the entire student body.”

Effective in January this year, Assembly Bill 438 changed the classified employee layoff process. Employees may only be laid off for the following year by noticing them by March 15—previously school districts were only required to provide 60 days notice. While the board approved the layoff resolution at the February board meeting to comply with the law, they expressed their concerns about the cuts and reserved the right not to take final action in May when final staffing decisions are made.

The board asked for a presentation and more information before eliminating the positions—a board workshop is being planned for April or May.

There are currently 30 students with behavior plans for BSIs across the district. Most districts in the North Coastal Consortium Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) do not have the BSI position, according to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Ryan Stanley.

As the district has worked to improve and provide additional supports for students using a new tiered system that includes counselors and a mental health specialist, Stanley said they no longer have work for five BSIs who are not directly assigned.

“We recognize there is an ongoing need to support our students behaviorally and to support our teachers in the classroom and this resolution helps us prioritize when and how these direct services will be provided,” Stanley said.

The five BSIs will return to their previous title of instructional aid support positions during the school day—the district believes that the move puts employees in the right position to meet the needs of students. While hours will be reduced from 40 to 30 hours a week, all employees who work 30 to 39 hours are still eligible for benefits but there will be an increased cost to the employees.

Katie Artiano, one of the district’s two autism behavior specialists, said she had grave concerns about eliminating BSIs who are trained to maximize the impact of behavioral programming districtwide. Artiano said the skillset of a BSI is unique and specialized--they are registered behavior technicians who collect data, provide direct student support and lead crisis interventions. Part of their job is compiling and graphing student data and assisting with behavior incident report write-ups, which can’t be done while they are in the classroom supporting students.

Parents spoke up about the positive impact these positions have on their children.

Greenfield shared his experience with his son, a bright student who has developmental and learning disabilities that lead to frustration and behavioral challenges. He said during his first two years in the district his son was under-supported by aids who did not have proper training, which made it hard to meet his educational goals. He said there were days that the entire class suffered and his son was sent to the “quiet room” for cool down time. On a good day, he said his son spent 50% of the day in the general ed classroom: “To say that he was not receiving FAPE (a free appropriate public education) is an understatement,” Greenfield said.

“Things changed dramatically when we included aid support equivalent to BSI in our IEP (Individualized Education Plan),” Greenfield said. In a few months, his son was able to make the transition to a typical student—while he still has disabilities, they are no longer debilitating and disruptive: “There is zero doubt in mind that my son made progress,” he said.

Another parent said her child with autism, ADHD and anxiety has had issues every day and it’s only because of the BSI and occupational therapist that he is able to be in a mainstream classroom and thrive: “These people are so special and they’re so important.”

Parents have said that the BSI cuts are just one part of a larger problem with the special education program in the district and children not getting the services that they need. One parent said she believes many more students would qualify for a service like a BSI, more than the 30 that the district is currently serving.

At the March 16 board meeting, two parents told the board they have been asking for an aid for their child for several years and have been denied.

A parent said as a group, special education parents in the district are not happy: “I know I have to fight tooth and nail to get the services that my children deserve,” she said. “In the meantime, our kids are suffering.”

At the February meeting, Trustees Gee Wah Mok and Katherine Fitzpatrick both struggled with a decision that would remove support for students. Trustee Doug Rafner said he appreciates the work that their BSIs do—“They have the patience of saints”—and he was concerned that by reducing their hours, the district could end up losing people. With the pandemic creating more behavioral issues not less, he too struggled with cutting the position.

Included in the Feb. 16 approved layoffs was the elimination of positions in the nutrition services and technology departments and one occupational therapist position. The changes result in an annual cost savings of $716,000.