Thursday, March 17, 2016

Spokane special ed leader accused of "aggressive" behavior before resignation, investigation

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2016 at 12:58 PM

Before prompting a federal investigation into Spokane Public Schools' special education practices, former Director of Special Education Laura Pieper was written up by the district for "aggressive, unprofessional" behavior and later placed on administrative leave, according to documents obtained by the Inlander through a public records request. 

Last spring, Pieper filed a civil rights complaint accusing the district of discriminating against special education students, leading the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to open an investigation into the district's handling of special education. 

That investigation is ongoing. Pieper, meanwhile, has since resigned and moved to the west side of the state, yet details about what exactly led to her resignation have been unclear: The district has been unable to comment on specifics, and Pieper told the Spokesman-Review only that there was a "philosophical divide" between her and district personnel. 

But a document attached to the complaint she filed with Office of Civil Rights reveals there was more at play. Shortly before she was transferred out of her position and placed on leave, she was written up by the district HR department for addressing two members of the special education leadership team in an "aggressive, unprofessional manner" in March 2015. She was also accused of grabbing a school principal, spinning him around and making him feel uncomfortable. 

From the report: 
Two administrators were interviewed related to this report. Both described that you grabbed (the principal) by both arms, spun him around two times (changing the direction he was facing), pulled him into another administrator's office, and then continued to hold both of his arms while talking to him about an emergency expulsion decision situation.
Pieper denied making the principal feel uncomfortable on purpose and suggests the accusations were a political ploy. She wrote in the complaint to the OCR that she attributes the incident "to their desire to push me out of the Spokane School District so they do not have to address the issues related to students with disabilities other than those of their choosing."

The district's Director of Community Relations Kevin Morrison offered the following statement in response via email:

"The separation of Ms. Piper (sic) from Spokane Public Schools was based on multiple allegations and subsequent investigation and corroboration from several employees of mistreatment and creation of a hostile work environment."

Pieper, who served as a school administrator in the Bellevue School District for 14 years before accepting the job in Spokane in 2014, had raised issues with the district's special education policies before her alleged unprofessional behavior. 

Specifically, she wanted to change the policy of weighting special students as 1.5 instead of 1, a practice she believes is a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law ensuring services to children with disabilities. The policy means, Pieper says, that if there is one open spot in a general education classroom, a student weighted 1.5 would not get in. She says that further secludes special education students and causes them to fall behind. 

Yet many teachers would disagree, arguing that the weighting policy lessens their workload and allows them to give more attention to their students. The district has maintained that such a policy on its own is not discriminatory and violates no law. 

Either way, Pieper wanted to see a change. In February 2015 she met with district officials and notified them of the perceived problem. She says it was immediately after that when things started to go south, and a month later she was questioned by HR about her behavior. 

In April 2015, Pieper was transferred from her position as director of special education to director of special programs. It was a slight pay raise, Pieper says, but it was a position in title only and she was left out of meetings. Shortly after that, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights opened its investigation into special education in Spokane, and Pieper was placed on paid administrative leave.

She resigned from the district in November 2015 as part of an agreement between the district and the Department of Education.

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Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.