Prince William County School Board Chairman Gerard Cleary ordered an investigation last week into policies for handicapped students at Sudley Elementary School after special education teacher Mary Wilds told the board that those policies have brought her to the point of resignation.
Wilds, in her sixth year as a third-grade teacher for physically handicapped children, told an obviously surprised board that her students have been routinely deprived of necessary therapy services and equipment all year.
The problem peaked, she said, when she submitted her students' therapy programs for next year to the school staff recently and was told they were "inappropriate." The programs were returned to her, she said, with significant cuts. When she protested the cuts, Wilds said, she was told she could be accused of insubordination, which could lead to her dismissal, if she refused to sign the changed programs.
In a trembling voice, Wilds told the board, "I no longer have respect for an administration that makes policies denying the rights of students, parents and teachers. I seriously intend to resign."
Cleary asked to see Wilds' written statement, then called a lengthy recess, returning to announce that the county school staff will conduct a thorough investigation at Sudley.
School Superintendent Richard Johnson, who has a handicapped son in the county school system, said he is unaware of problems and could not comment until the investigation is complete.
Sudley Principal Dan Bennett said the policies at the school are approved by Johnson and his staff and implement state regulations in compliance with federal guidelines. Bennett said he could not comment on Wilds' assertion of cutbacks and threats to her job because the matter is under investigation. "I wish it were otherwise," he said.
Charles Cohenour, whose daughter Leah, a second grader, has cerebral palsy, also spoke to the board last week, saying parents are intimidated into signing their children's programs. Once signed by the teacher, the school administrator and the parents, the programs become legally binding contracts, officials said.
"I fear for my child to go to this school system," Cohenour said. "She is not getting what she needs, but if we don't sign they tell us she won't be accepted into the program at all."
Leah, who has been accepted into the county program for the gifted next fall, has been routinely denied the use of a computer she needs to read and gets inadequate physical therapy, Cohenour said. The family has retained a lawyer to fight the cutbacks, he said.
Deputy Superintendent Richard Chapin said the investigation Cleary ordered began the day after the meeeting. "We've got a good special education system and we listen to advice and criticism from parents and employes. We didn't expect this -- but we won't sweep it under the rug," Chapin said.
Wilds said her class will be moved to Ben Lomond Elementary School in the fall, another factor leading to her decision to resign. "The policy of the School Board has been that handicapped students will go through all 12 years of school mainstreamed with essentially the same regular education students they started with. It takes a long time for these kids to be accepted by so-called normal children and regular education teachers. Now they will have to adjust all over again."
Some of her students cannot walk or talk and some need special care, Wilds said. She said she is also concerned that there is no nurse available in case of an emergency.
County Director of Special Education James Harris said that except for minor changes, county policy for handicapped students remains the same as it was last year. He denied a cutback in services or equipment.
"My whole staff is looking into Mrs. Wilds' allegations," he said. "In my experience it's common for teachers to disagree with administration on the individual programs [for handicapped students]. I've never heard of teachers leaving because of it."
Said Wilds, "I was told that if I could not follow the rules and regulations of Prince William County schools I should get out and find a job as an advocate. I always thought that [being a] teacher and child advocate were interchangeable terms."