Laura Pieper was supposed to change special education in Spokane for the better. At least, that's what she thought.
Pieper, formerly a Bellevue School District school administrator for 14 years, says she accepted the position as Spokane Public Schools' director of special education in 2014 because she was explicitly told that the district needed someone to fix the system.
It's less than two years later, and Pieper has since resigned, accusing district officials of forcing her out because they didn't want to change policies that Pieper thought violated the civil rights of special needs students. Before she left, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights that alleges district discrimination against special ed students. As the federal investigation into that complaint continues, Pieper, more than she ever did as an employee, is attracting scrutiny to special ed practices in Spokane — something many parents and special ed advocates have desperately wanted.
The district has a different story regarding what led to her resignation last year. It denies that Pieper's desire to change special ed policies had anything to do with her resignation, and rejects the notion that it violated any laws in the first place. Instead, SPS spokesman Kevin Morrison says her separation was based on multiple allegations of employee mistreatment and creation of a hostile work environment. Pieper calls those claims a fabrication.
No matter what led to Pieper's departure from Spokane Public Schools, her complaint questions the district's special ed practices, mainly how the district weights special ed students as 1.5 students for class-size purposes, as opposed to mainstream students who are weighted as 1.0. That, she says, is discriminatory, because it makes it harder for special ed students to enroll in classes, and it goes against the spirit of including special ed students in the general education environment.
Again, the district says this is not discriminatory. It maintains that weighting special ed kids as 1.5 students actually helps them because it lowers class sizes and workload for teachers.
But for Kelly Knutson, a parent who says her son was denied entry into a class because of the weighting policy, this is another example of the overall culture of denial the district has created.
"It has the feel of: 'We'll deny, deny, deny, deny until it gets to a fever pitch.' Or, 'We feel like they know enough that we can't deny anymore,'" Knutson says. "It breeds a tremendous amount of resentment and distrust."
MORE THAN A STUDENT
Let's say there are 24 students in a second grade classroom, one fewer than the maximum number of students currently allowed in a Spokane second grade classroom. Both a mainstream student and a special ed student want to enroll, but the special ed student is weighted as 1.5, per the agreement between the teachers union and district.
In this scenario, the mainstream student would most likely be allowed in without issue. Yet students with an Individualized Education Plan, which can be created for kids diagnosed with anything from dyslexia to autism, may be told there is no room.
That is what Pieper argues is discrimination and violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law meant to ensure disabled students a free and appropriate public education. Spokane is the only district in the region to weight students with IEPs as 1.5 students, and it's done so for decades.
In Spokane Public Schools, more than 16 percent of the student population, or roughly 4,800 kids, is considered special ed, among the highest rates in the state, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The district, like many across the nation, is in the midst of a teacher shortage disproportionately impacting special education positions. Through all of this, the district has been trying for years to implement a so-called "Inclusion Model," an ongoing national movement to integrate special ed students into general education classrooms so they can spend more time with their peers and learn content at their own grade level.
The weighting policy is intended to ensure that none of this creates class sizes too large for teachers, says Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association.
"When you keep adding students, that is not good for the students in the classroom," Rose says. "If teachers have a 25 class-size limit and 29 kids, you're not serving any of those kids."
She says that more inclusion into general education classes came with no additional training for those teachers.
At Rogers High School, there are currently about 300 special ed students who all have IEPs. Due to the teacher shortage, some special ed teachers are on "super contracts" to compensate for a heavier workload, says Nicole Kilgore, the school's special ed department lead.
She says the weighting policy has had little impact on inclusion either way.
"Personally, I don't understand why we need to do a 1.5 [policy]," Kilgore says. "I think these kids are regular students, and to say they're 1.5 is to say they take that much more time than regular kids. And I don't necessarily believe that."
The district, in its response to Pieper's complaint, argues no law states that weighting students differently is illegal. It argues that Pieper gave no examples of students being discriminated against based on the policy, and as long as weighting is not "applied in such a manner as to prevent students from being mainstreamed or denied a free and appropriate public education," then it violates no laws or civil rights.
Yet Pieper did provide at least two written examples of students who could not enter classrooms for "inclusion opportunities" due to classroom caps, according to the complaint.
Lisa Pacheco, Spokane Public Schools' new director of special education, says it was rare that students would not be accepted into a classroom based on weighting, and that was before the language was modified in the teachers' contract last year to ensure a student is not turned away because of their designated weight.
"That has since gone away. If there is a position — if there is a 1.0 opening and a student is considered weighted — they will still have access," Pacheco says. "So I think that was a concern that might be one piece that could impact inclusion, but it doesn't at this point."
Kelly Knutson would beg to differ.
Her 8-year-old adopted son, Zachery, has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and has anxiety and behavioral issues. She says he has been the victim of the weighting policy twice — the first time as a first grader, when she wanted him to switch classes at Indian Trail Elementary. More recently, in December, she tried to switch schools altogether based on a recommendation from his therapist, because the classroom environment had her son picking at his skin. She called four other schools to see if they had an opening, and one of those schools told her they had no room because he was weighted as 1.5 students.
For Knutson, the weighting policy is an issue that represents a broader problem for special education in the district.
"Laura Pieper is not the district's problem," Knutson says. "She understood the law, she was an advocate for our kids, and then there was pushback."
When Spokane Public Schools was interviewing candidates for the director of special education in 2014, it reached out to the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, a group Knutson is part of.
Included in that group is Nikki Lockwood, who also has a special needs child in Spokane. She says Pieper was brought in because she was an agent of change and she advocated for parents.
"I had a significant issue with my kid, and she made phone calls and helped us," Lockwood says. "But that's just a parent perspective."
Yet there were several reports of Pieper not getting along with employees, even acting aggressively, before she was ultimately transferred, put on administrative leave and officially left the district late in 2015.
Some of what she advocated for is now being carried on by this group of parents who want more consistent care for their special needs kids at all schools. Knutson, for example, says now that she finally has her son in another school, he's doing better.
"We either know of or have experienced what good looks like, so we really, really know what bad looks like," Knutson says. "We've seen both sides of that, and we're aware of both sides of it, and that inconsistency is really a struggle."
Pacheco taught special ed for 13 years before working her way up as a principal and eventually to head of special education. She says her door is open, and most issues can be solved with a conversation.
But unlike Pieper, is she confident that the district's policies are in accordance with the law?
"I'm confident that, yes, we're doing a great job," Pacheco says. "I don't think any system is perfect, but I think we're doing an outstanding job, and working as hard as we can to make sure that we're following the letter of the law." ♦