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Posted at 04:22 PM ET, 09/12/2012

Lasting mystery of suspended Falls Church teacher

On Valentine’s Day 2011, Jamie Lahy, a special education instructor at George Mason High School in Falls Church, was put on temporary leave and told to clean out his desk. Officials at the small public school, highly prized in the region for its top test scores and challenging International Baccalaureate courses, did not say why he was sent away.

Parents and students supporting Lahy packed a Falls Church School Board meeting protesting the move and seeking an explanation.

“He is a hero, a mentor for a lot of kids who were given up on last year,” Mason junior Jack Webster said, according to a story by Falls Church News-Press reporter Nicholas F. Benton.

Officials said they could not discuss the issue because it was a personnel matter, protected by privacy rules. Some parents were so enraged that they are still writing me about this, 19 months after it happened.

That interests me, as communication breakdowns between parents and schools often do. Was the sudden move necessary? Why couldn’t officials provide any information? Do such privacy rules inadvertently facilitate change by encouraging discussion of pent-up feelings?

What leaked about the temporary leave has only upset Lahy’s admirers more. Benton’s sources told him Lahy had to pack up after “school officials caught wind of a Facebook posting by a student indicating that Lahy may have informed the student in advance of the subject of a school assembly. . . . The assembly was on the subject of the school policy of bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus on a random basis for searches.”

Benton said his sources told him “Lahy was not the only instructor to have told students of the assembly’s subject matter beforehand, but the Facebook posting had the effect of singling him out. No one has suggested that Lahy broke any laws.”

The alleged offense seems trivial. Advance knowledge of assembly topics is common and no threat to a school or its students.

But a little-noticed benefit of such irritations is that they inspire useful debate, with local papers such as the News-Press printing detailed accounts of complaints about the school system that would not be news if there were no lively controversy. As parent Alison Kutchma said then, School Board members “now all know” there is a special education problem.

One of the most interesting reactions was a guest commentary in the News-Press by Barbara Nooter, parent of a special needs child. She said she resigned from the school board’s special education advisory committee because of the action against Lahy and “because there is no point wasting time on a committee that is heard by neither the School Board nor especially the [Falls Church public school] administration.”

She acknowledged the Falls Church school system’s sterling reputation and its great students and teachers. But, she said, many special education parents were frustrated. She said “eligibility meetings seem to have pre-ordained outcomes, kids are denied needed services, [general education] teachers don’t always understand or implement services, and kids with special needs are not supported in honors or IB classes.”

This inspired much comment online and in the newspaper. Some parents endorsed Nooter’s views. Others did not. “My kid is struggling because he has a disability, not because the school or the system is failing him,” Peggy Monahan wrote in a letter to the paper.

Lahy went back to work a few weeks after the incident. Neither he nor school officials has said why. A new superintendent, Toni Jones, emphasized she is committed to special education.

I am told Lahy is happy to be back with his students and is restricted in what he can say. In an odd way, the system’s rejection of appeals for more information about what happened might lead to more support for Lahy’s work, because school officials know more about how deep is the dissatisfaction with special ed in their city.

By  |  04:22 PM ET, 09/12/2012

 
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