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Next Cleveland schools CEO must be a compassionate visionary who will meet the needs of children with disabilities: Danielle Gadomski Littleton

Posted April 17, 2023
4:41 pm

By Guest Columnist,

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- As the Cleveland Metropolitan School District considers applications for the next CEO, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland urges the Board of Education to select a leader who will meet the needs of children with disabilities and value the input of all caregivers.

Ensuring the provision of high-quality educational services to special education students will help all children — and our entire community — succeed.

At Legal Aid we represent parents and caregivers of students with disabilities in countless meetings and hearings involving students with disabilities. During the 2021-222 school year, 23.2% of the students in Cleveland schools were students with disabilities pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and have Individualized Education Programs.

Outgoing CEO Eric Gordon has devoted attention to addressing the needs of students with disabilities and decreasing disproportionate discipline. The next successful CEO must take seriously the responsibilities under IDEA to provide a free and appropriate public education to Cleveland's special education students.

This includes students with both academic and behavioral disabilities.

In our practice, we see cases such as Latoya’s (all names changed for privacy): a mother frustrated by the constant calls from the school and suspensions of her daughter, Aliyah, with a history of elevated lead poison levels and other mental health related disabilities. After a referral from Aliyah’s medical provider at University Hospitals to The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, a lawyer from Legal Aid advocated with the school at many meetings to show the connection between the student’s disability and the behaviors which were leading to suspensions.

Legal Aid also represented Latoya in meetings with the school about evaluating the reasons behind Aliyah’s behavior and developing a Behavior Intervention Plan to create the right conditions and responses to lessen the impact of her disabilities on her education.

Today, Aliyah is in school and learning skills she will need for success outside of school.

Many similarly situated students who we serve have faced disciplinary removals from school via suspensions, expulsions, emergency removals, involuntary transfers, or informal removals.

We were heartened by the decrease in expulsions during Eric Gordon’s tenure and hope that his successor will share the goal of student retention. Disciplinary removals disproportionately impact Black students and students with disabilities; these removals also correlate to consequences which irrevocably impact the lives of students: Reduced graduation rates, increased involvement with the juvenile justice system, and increased depression and substance abuse.

Students with behavioral and emotional needs should be identified and provided with the support that they need —and to which they are entitled. This includes educational and mental health services, rather than expulsion.

We encourage the Board of Education to elevate candidates who view parents and other caregivers as experts on their children and seek to rebuild the caregivers’ trust in Cleveland schools.

Many of our clients come to Legal Aid with a common frustration: Their child’s school is neither listening to their concerns, nor communicating what interventions are being tried and are available to address their child’s needs.

Many of our clients attended Cleveland schools themselves or had other children do so; some doubt whether the school has their child’s best interests at heart.

The next CEO must recognize caregiver concerns and value their perspectives. They should assume caregivers are doing the best they can in the circumstances and with the information available.

While Say Yes Cleveland and other family support programs connect families to material goods and community services, caregivers need the same amount of attention to their concerns about their student’s academic and behavioral needs. A successful CEO will create a culture of listening to caregivers and create a variety of opportunities for input and involvement.

We at Legal Aid look forward to partnering with the next CEO to meet these goals.

Danielle Gadomski Littleton is the supervising attorney on the education team at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Published: - Next Cleveland schools CEO must be a compassionate visionary who will meet the needs of children with disabilities: Danielle Gadomski Littleton 

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