Elise Murphy, a Staten Island parent of children with disabilities, has heard so many “shocking and devastating stories” from other parents, she says they don’t surprise her anymore.
There was the story about the school dance in a co-located school that District 75 students weren’t welcome to attend, and the one about the school library that was only available to mainstream students, and countless other issues that may not be schoolwide, but felt just as hurtful to the families trying to find solutions.
Parents are turning out and raising their voices, said Murphy, “Whether it’s an admissions issue where they’re having trouble getting their child placed appropriately or they’re bucking against the whole system.”
Enter the UFT.
In the summer of 2018, Murphy attended a UFT meeting to help plan the union’s Staten Island parent conference. The parents at that meeting conceived of the UFT special-needs parent committee, which met for the first time soon after.
Before receiving training from the UFT, Murphy says she and other parents would file appeals, advocate for IEP meetings or seek out other services for their children, but then hit “roadblocks” without realizing that “another door might be open somewhere else.” Through the UFT, she said, they learned about alternate ways to reach their goals.
“UFT training taught us how to speak up for our children,” she said. “That was a big component in us becoming as strong as we are today.”
Marie Rodriguez, the UFT’s Staten Island parent-community liaison, said the group gained confidence through the training. “There was no stopping them,” she said.
Committee members started showing up at meetings of the Staten Island Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations, joining their Community Education Councils and reporting back to each other at the UFT. Murphy spoke about her own children at a chancellor’s town hall and a Community Education Council meeting to advocate for improved conditions at District 75 sites and inclusion at co-located schools.
As a result of the committee’s advocacy in its first year, the annual PTA officer training on Staten Island will now dedicate time to special education issues. Conversations have started between District 75 parents and field support staff from the city Department of Education.
Rodriguez hopes to bring more parents into the fold and help them “educate themselves so they can be the best advocates for their children.”
Going forward, all paper communications the Staten Island Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations sends to parents will include both District 31 and District 75 on the letterhead, a development Murphy calls one of the committee’s “biggest accomplishments.”
“Although we were always welcome in the federation, we were sometimes told by administration that it wasn’t for us,” she said, but the letterhead change “opened the door.”
“District 75 parents see fliers that only say District 31 and assume they’re not invited,” said Murphy. “It’s difficult for parents to determine where they belong.”
Inclusion in the school culture benefits both children with disabilities and their mainstream peers, she says: “Every parent should want their child to understand diversity.”