State, parents say Springfield schools fail to provide adequate special education

Ryleigh Rattanakoun stopped attending Springfield schools in fifth grade and has since struggled to find a permanent school that works with his needs. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

After a two-month investigation, the Vermont Agency of Education found the Springfield School District at fault for not providing special education services to a student, as required by law.

Other parents in the district report near-identical experiences. 

In the report, provided to VTDigger on Friday, the state found that Springfield had failed to implement the student’s individual education plan, did not educate the student in the least restrictive environment, and failed to provide a free and appropriate public education — all of which are required by law.

The student, 9-year-old Maurice, has several disabilities, including blindness, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

“It feels incredibly validating,” Maurice’s mother, Lauren, said of the state’s findings. “They see through the nonsense the district has been maintaining and recognize Maurice has been denied his education.” 

At Lauren’s request, she and her son are being identified only by their first names.

The investigation found that Springfield provided no academic special education services for Maurice from July 26 to Oct. 29 of last year and from Jan. 2 to Feb. 7. Springfield failed “almost completely” to provide physical therapy for the student, despite the child’s individual education plan, the report said. 

Ryleigh Rattanakoun of Springfield. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

In speaking to state investigators, Springfield officials cited a lack of staff — particularly highly trained specialists — as a primary reason for the failure to follow Maurice’s educational plan.

The report, signed by Secretary of Education Dan French, requires Springfield to submit a plan for compensating for the service Maurice missed. 

Springfield Superintendent Zach McLaughlin did not respond to phone and email requests for comment Friday afternoon. 

According to Lauren, since she filed her complaint Springfield has been providing only 30 minutes of services per week to Maurice. 

Ryleigh Rattanakoun of Springfield. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

In July, Maurice was removed from his Union Street Elementary fourth-grade class for pulling a paraprofessional’s hair. The district sought an alternative placement better suited to his needs. But the Hartford Autism Regional Program wasn’t taking new students and Foundations Upper Valley, a school in Windsor, lacked the medical resources Maurice needed, according to the state’s report. 

Without anywhere to go, and with Springfield failing to provide significant services itself, Maurice was stuck at home. 

Two other families who spoke to VTDigger told nearly identical stories about their experiences in Springfield.

The mother of a Springfield student with severe anxiety and behavioral issues spoke with VTDigger anonymously out of concern that her child would have services withheld as a result. She said she has been forced to leave her son at home since he was kicked out of Foundations in Windsor for behavioral issues. 

In the last month, Springfield has not provided educational services, she said, and she does not have a lead on a new school for her son to attend.  

Jennifer Flores and her son Ryleigh, who has autism, have been searching since November for placement in an alternative school. 

In fifth grade, Ryleigh was kicked out of Springfield schools after a meltdown that resulted in the police being called, Flores said. Her son is prone to outbursts — sometimes violent ones — and teachers did not know how to provide Ryleigh the help he needed, she said. 

After several months, Ryleigh began school in Hartford’s autism program. For years, he thrived and was often excited to go to school. “He really loved it there,” Flores said. 

Ryleigh Rattanakoun of Springfield. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

After four years, though, Ryleigh was kicked out of Hartford following a similar incident. Since then, Ryleigh has attended two different schools and been forced to leave both. For the last six months, Ryleigh has been at home in Springfield with no schooling or services provided by the district.

“You can’t just keep a kid out of school knowing that there’s nowhere else to send them and they just sit home. It’s not fair,” Flores said. “I’m pissed.”

Fed up with Springfield’s lack of action, Flores recently posted Ryleigh’’s story online. When she’s written publicly about her struggle, other parents in the district have shared similar stories with her, Flores said. 

Though she received two referrals this week for Ryleigh to attend residential schools in Massachusetts, Flores said she does not yet know whether the schools have space or whether they will accept Springfield’s payment. 

Flores has been proactive, researching residential schools for Ryleigh to attend out of state. But she said she knows not all parents have the time to be their children’s primary advocates. She said she recognizes that Springfield lacks the resources to provide for all students with disabilities, and there are few options within driving distance for alternative day schools.  

“There’s nowhere for these kids to go. At all,” Flores said. 

By speaking out about her inability to find a long-term solution for her son’s educational needs, Flores said she hopes to create a better system going forward.

“If they don’t change anything, the future-generation kids that are like Lauren’s and my son, Ryleigh, they’re going to be screwed,” she said. 

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