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Speaking up for students with disabilities

New York Teacher
MaryJo Ginese

MaryJo Ginese
VP for Special Education

The city’s superintendents gathered at UFT headquarters in early October. We made it clear to them at this introductory meeting that when special-education compliance issues are brought to their attention, we’ll be checking in to make sure they’re working in earnest to solve the problem. That’s in service of a goal central to our union’s work: making sure special education teachers and related-service providers feel empowered to speak up when their students don’t receive mandated services.

UFT members have the right to point out noncompliance through the chapter leader’s consultation committee meetings with the principal. If the issue can’t be resolved informally in the school, members have the right to file an anonymous special-education complaint and have the union escalate the complaint as necessary.

But I often hear from UFT members who don’t raise issues at their schools because they fear retaliation from their administration. Some don’t trust that their complaint will remain anonymous, particularly if they work in a small school where they are the only therapist or other service provider. And some simply don’t want to rock the boat.

Yet members who speak up get results. When Chad Hamilton was a teacher delegate at P231 in Brooklyn, where he’s now chapter leader, the principal mishandled the budget and ran out of funding for substitute paraprofessionals who were providing needed 1:1 support. The principal abruptly fired all the substitute paras.

“That was it: goodbye and good luck,” said Hamilton. He pointed out to his principal the major safety issues and disruption of IEP-mandated services caused by the firings. The issue couldn’t be resolved via the consultation process, so the staff banded together to file more than 20 special education complaints for students deprived of services. Because P231, like many District 75 programs, has multiple sites, staff had to cooperate to gather information. In less than a week, the UFT had escalated the complaint to the schools chancellor, who secured funding to rehire the substitute paras.

“We have tremendous power and we can do so much for our students with special needs when we problem-solve together,” Hamilton said. “We can rattle the entire DOE.”

Angela Espinal-Pimentel, an early childhood teacher at PS 119 in the Bronx, likewise learned the value of the union when her principal assigned special education staff to office work and ignored the mandated services that students with disabilities required. The school’s chapter leader worked closely with members and the UFT district representative to confront the issue. Using the union’s tools, including the special education complaint and the ENL complaint, the members documented incidents and worked with the UFT’s special education division to advocate for the students and their rights.

“The principal’s method was ‘divide and conquer,’ ” Espinal-Pimentel said. The principal “thought by telling us we were toxic or the people next to us were toxic, that would divide us, but it united us more.”

The staff held the administration accountable through emails, complaints and consultation. The PS 119 principal eventually changed course.

“We learned as a chapter to stand together to demand change for the benefit of our students,” Espinal-Pimentel said. “It was not easy, and we faced retaliation daily, but as our chapter grew stronger, and with the union’s support, we rallied together.”

Related Topics: VP for Special Education