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Credibility of special ed program questioned — Attorney spends 4 hours on director in contract dispute

The head of Brookhaven School District’s special education program clashed with an attorney accusing her of failure and falsification Thursday, testifying from the witness stand for four hours in the third day of contract hearings for an ousted principal.

Brookhaven School District Special Services Director Brandy Myers and defense attorney Lisa Ross ran deep into the finest points of special education law during their sometimes-heated dispute over the district’s handling of a pair of autistic students whose interactions with Brookhaven Elementary School principal Shelley Riley were cited as reasons for the non-renewal of her contract as principal of Brookhaven Elementary School. Myers spoke fast and firm and largely avoided attempts to cross her up, but the attorney questioned Myers’ testimony that many decisions concerning special needs students are made below, and without, her involvement.

“Where is the leadership? Your people are failing to recognize the signs,” Ross said.

Ross’s questions were aimed at Myers and her department in an effort to defend Riley’s interactions with the students by showing the district failed to educate and manage them, and failed to train its administrators and teachers on proper methods for dealing with their outbursts.

Riley is facing non-renewal mainly because of a Jan. 6, 2017 incident in which she allegedly dragged one of the students down the BES hallway by his backpack during a meltdown, and a second incident on Sept. 22 that same year in which she stood back and videoed the other student’s meltdown instead of engaging with him.

Superintendent Ray Carlock is also citing a tantrum Riley is alleged to have thrown toward office staff at Mamie Martin Elementary School over checkout permissions concerning her grandson.

Ross started her questioning of the special services department’s credibility with a long line of questions referencing a pair of Mississippi Department of Education investigations into the district for violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a 1973 law that protects students with disabilities from discrimination in all public schools. Both investigations, one in 2012 and the other in 2016, were conducted over complaints from a previous student’s mother.

Ross had Myers read at length from the two reports, which described the district’s failures to service the student in multiple areas. Myers deflected much of the criticism by pointing out the district was later found to be in compliance after submitting corrective action plans and training personnel.

“It took a report from a child’s parent to get y’all to do what the law says you should have already done,” Ross said. “Who’s getting paid in Brookhaven to find and identify children with disabilities?”

Myers said the district disagrees with some of MDEs findings and filed an appeal along with its corrective action plan in 2016. Myers said MDE failed to ask for some documentation the district had that would have lessened the findings, but Ross pointed out MDE closed the case without granting the appeal.

The Daily Leader wrote about the two MDE investigations in detail in the May 12 story, “District cited for special ed problems.” The newspaper requested copies of the corrective action plans MDE required from the district as a result of those investigations, but MDE denied the request on June 4.

Ross asked Myers if the district failed the student identified in the 2012 and 2016 investigations. The student just completed his senior year.

“I do not,” Myers said. “This student walked across the stage three weeks ago.”

Myers also said the student received a certificate of attendance and now plans to get his GED.

Ross also pushed Myers on the district’s training for dealing with special needs students who have outbursts. During the second day of the hearing last month, district behavioral specialist Anabel Spencer — who works for Myers — testified she teaches restraint and seclusion techniques to other district employees with slideshows that last “25 or 30 minutes.”

Ross then pointed out the Crisis Prevention Institute, an MDE-approved vendor for the training, teaches the class over three days. When Ross asked if the course could be properly taught in one half-hour, Spencer said, “no.”

Spencer also testified she had never seen the district’s policy on restraint and seclusion training, which mirrors state policy.

On Thursday, Myers countered the training could be as long or as short as an employee needs, depending on previous training sessions, and testified Spencer was confused when she testified she had never seen the policy. She testified she had Spencer’s signature on a document saying she had read and understood the policy. Ross did not push the issue.

Ross and Myers went on to spar over the monitoring requirements of one of the student’s Individualized Education Program, with Ross claiming the district failed to include required reports in the IEP and Myers countering the alleged missing data was recorded in “therapist’s notes.” She said the IEP does not contain the notes, only the reports the notes are used to generate.

Ross went on to accuse Myers of fabricating pages in the IEP to cover for the district, pointing out some progress reports showed only numbers and lacked the names of the presiding teacher while other reports in the plan listed teachers’ names.

Myers said the report was generated by a therapist and the district only lists teachers, not therapists. She said the reports were likely generated by substitutes for the late Kathy Shackelford, a speech language pathologist who worked with the student before she passed away last summer.

“Had I mentioned Mrs. Shackelford’s name and she had been placed on hospice, I could have been found in violation,” Myers said.

Myers did not elaborate — she could have been referring to medical privacy laws. The attorney pointed out Shackelford left the district in May 2016.

“She was still involved as much as she could be,” Myers said.

Ross also asked why the special services department waited a year to conduct a manifestation hearing — which determines if a child’s behavioral problems are the result of a disability — on one of the students who transferred in from Loyd Star Attendance Center with an existing IEP. Myers said the document showed the student had ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, not autism, and the evaluation wasn’t done until the IEP team suspected autism.

“The IEP from Loyd Star shows the student was suspended or expelled 25 out of 56 days, with two assault charges,” Ross said. “Would that have been cause for concern?”

Myers testified the student was paddled by former Mamie Martin Elementary School Principal Rob McCreary prior to the manifestation hearing in accordance with corporal punishment policies.

Before Myers’ took the stand, Mamie Martin Principal Danny Rushing testified he and McCreary swapped positions beginning with the 2017 school year, with McCreary taking over as district federal programs director. Rushing said he and McCreary worked out the swap with Carlock, and to his knowledge the position was not posted as open.

“I told Mr. Carlock if something came available, I would be interested in that,” Rushing said.

Riley is claiming discrimination in her non-renewal, claiming McCreary was promoted from Mamie Martin, a poorly-performing school, while her BES is the district’s second-highest-performing school behind Brookhaven High School.

Rushing went on to say one of his first tasks at Mamie Martin was to increase instructional time for math, and that he did not look at video of Riley’s outburst against office staff there because he believed he and Riley settled the issue in conversation. Under Ross’s questioning, he admitted safety procedures were not followed when office staff failed to notify Riley her grandson was being checked out. He said he gave those staff a verbal reprimand.

BES math teacher April Grim was the only other witness to testify Thursday, and she told her version of the alleged dragging incident, which involved an autistic student who was confused on how he was getting home during an early release on a bad-weather day.

“I saw a student fussing with Mrs. Riley. She was telling him to go to the buses, and he was trying to go around her,” Grim said. “He went to the floor, and Mrs. Riley had to get him by his backpack and pull him toward the buses.”

Grim said Riley pulled the student approximately the length of a classroom, “plus 5 feet.”

Grim testified she was told by deputy superintendent Rod Henderson to give a statement on the event, but after reading The Daily Leader’s coverage of the hearing’s second day in which Henderson testified he received three of the four requested statements, she realized she forgot to send hers. Ross handed Grim a document, signed by Henderson, that said her statement was added to his report on the incident.

In his only redirection of the day, school board attorney Bob Allen questioned Grim about her statement she would not have engaged the student as Riley did.

“It’s not right to put your hands on him, is it?” Allen asked.

“No,” Grim said.