No Excuse For Not Providing Education To Am. Samoa Disabled Kids

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Office of Protection & Advocacy for the Disabled complains to governor

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Feb. 5, 2015) – Children with disabilities are not getting a quality education in public schools as required by federal law and there is "no excuse" for not providing them such an education, says Matautu Dr. Peter Tinitali, director of the Office of Protection & Advocacy for the Disabled (OPAD), in a letter that outlines complaints from the parents of children with disabilities, and states his viewpoint on the issue.

Matautu’s Feb. 2, three-page letter comes at a time when Education Department Director Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau’s move to decentralize the Special Education program (SPED) — to correct among other things, major non compliance issues — has been met with strong opposition from the head of SPED and a certain group of faipule.

The letter is addressed to Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga, the DOE director and Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Allen — who, along with other House members, visited the governor on Jan. 23 to voice objections to Vaitinasa’s decision to decentralize DOE’s Special Education division. Samoa News was told that a phone call to the DOE was made from the Governor’s Office, right after the visit, to stop the decentralization move.

On average, SPED receives about $6.3 million annually from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education for its operations and services for about 900 students. For the FY 2015 budget, documents show it’s getting $6.54 million — with $5.92 million going toward personnel costs, which is funding for 230 positions/ jobs.

In his letter, Matautu explained OPAD’s role in overseeing two federal programs in the territory, focusing on legal issues and advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities. In education, OPAD advocates for students with disabilities to receive an appropriate education in an inclusive setting, based on provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

He pointed out that the USDOE Office of Special Education Programs provides $6.3 million to the territory’s SPED "and they want assurance that children with disabilities are provided with appropriate special education services."

"I hope this letter will make clear the real issue... children with disabilities deserve appropriate and quality special education services, there should be no excuses," said Matautu, who has been OPAD director since 2013, and has 39-years of experience in the Special Education Division and holds a Masters degree in special education as well as a PhD in Education.

Of note, Matautu further writes that the review team from Hawai’i supervised by Dr. Thomas Harwood, a licensed school psychologist, interviewed him. He noted that his answers to the review team on how SPED was providing services were identical to the team’s findings about SPED.

"I stated: inappropriate services, weak leadership, little or no monitoring of teachers’ performances, lack of qualify training for teachers, and not meeting IDEA requirements of referral and assessment process, IEP services, least restricted environment and free and appropriate education," said Matautu.

(Samoa News should point out that the Hawai’i team Matautu is referring to were the authors of the review report that led the DOE to eventually implement decentralization of SPED. See Background at end of story for more details of the SPED program issues.)

Copies of the letter were sent to nine other individuals, including Reps. Vesi Talalelei Fautanu Jr., Talaimatai Elisara Su’a, Larry Sanitoa, Vailoata Eteuati Amituana’i and Meauta Lauoi Mageo.

OPAD DIRECTOR’S CONCERNS

In his letter, Matautu recalled when Faimealelei subpoenaed OPAD and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation to explain why an individual with disabilities had been denied appropriate services. Faimealelei was concerned that services were not being rendered to persons with disabilities and the lawmaker was "very emotional" in his "compassion" to advocate for the rights of people of disabilities, Matautu pointed out.

He says he then noted complaints from concerned parents of those children, as they were not receiving appropriate special education services from SPED. Additionally, complaints OPAD received were sent to SPED leadership and monitoring teams.

"Parents were unhappy, disappointed and unsatisfied with Special Education services shown by complaint letters to our office and the [USDOE] Office of Civil Rights," he wrote, adding that others — such as ASG agency leaders, legislators, and the Advisory Council comprised of parents of children with developmental disabilities and individuals with disabilities — had also informed Vaitinasa that "SPED was not providing appropriate services to children with disabilities."

Vaitinasa told Samoa News last November that she had requested an assessment of SPED by a Hawai’i team of specialists after many complaints and concerns from parents were forwarded to her office by OPAD.

In his letter, Matautu outlined the parents' concerns and complaints pertaining to SPED. Under the IDEA provision on "Least Restricted Environment (LRE) and Accessibility", parents' complaints included the fact that students could not attend school because of Special Education’s inability to provide specialized wheelchairs for children with physical impairments.

Additionally, students’ IEP (Individual Education Program) goals were incomplete and didn’t include written related services for physical therapy, occupational therapy, transportation, and speech and language. Children with significant physical impairment were served in home-based education, which consisted of two days a week for two hours. They were also receiving inconsistently scheduled education services from teachers and related service providers.

Further, some children didn’t attend school for several years because there were no appropriate wheelchairs to access school, and there was a lack of appropriate vehicles to transport the children to and from an inclusive educational setting.

Other parents’ complaints dealt with "Qualified Personnel and Nondiscriminatory Identification and Evaluation". For example, there were no licensed counselors, speech or language teachers, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, behaviorists and occupational therapists to provide the services required.

Additionally, there were no assistive technology computers, hearing aids, communication boards, etc., for the children; and children were not being evaluated and diagnosed for their disabilities.

The OPAD director says other complaints that surfaced were: there were no qualified assessment personnel to evaluate and diagnose children’s disabilities; a lack of — or inappropriate — classroom environment, educational materials, assistive technologies and teaching strategies; and SPED disobeyed a court order to transport a student with disabilities from the Juvenile Detention Center to school and back.

BACKGROUND

The DOE director’s decision to decentralize SPED follows a review by five Special Education professionals from the Hawai’i Department of Education, which cited lack of accountability and major non compliance in the services provided for local SPED children,

Two weeks ago, DOE Deputy Director Fa’aui Vaitaotolu began reassigning SPED leadership to specific high school districts "to better serve" their students, while Special Education Assistant Director, Jeanette Vasai Tilo, head of the SPED program was re-assigned to work "aside from or along side Special Education" — reporting to the DOE main office for work. Lack of improvement in SPED services, despite efforts by ASDOE for SPED to correct major issues, was cited by Vaitaotolu as the reason for the changes.

Tilo, in a letter to the Education director, has since declined the offer by DOE regarding her new assignment and voiced her objections to the decentralization of SPED, citing among other things that it "may not always be efficient, especially for standardized, routine and network based services." She also noted in her letter that her 303 reflects that she’s the Assistant Director for SPED and the duties and responsibilities that come with that position and title are those assigned to her. "As this title and position are career service, other options to consider, should I decline the reassignment, were not discussed. I have sought the counsel of an attorney should I need one," she said.

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