(Updating: Adding comment from Florida Department of Education)
The Florida testing outrages just keep on coming.
Last month, I wrote about Paula Drew, a mom who asked the Florida Education Department for a standardized-testing exemption for her daughter, 15-year-old Madison Drew, who has cerebral palsy, suffers from a number of conditions related to her condition that have left her unable to speak and takes several medications daily to prevent seizures, which can affect her cognitive abilities. The department said no.
I have in recent years published posts about a boy named Michael who was born without the cognitive part of his brain but was made by the same Florida Education Department to take an alternative state-mandated standardized test. Michael, as I wrote then, couldn’t tell the difference between an apple and an orange, but his caretaker was still forced to administer the test. He later won an exemption — after the publicity about his condition.
Then there was Ethan Rediske. Ethan, who passed away in 2014 at age 11, was born with severe brain damage and had cerebral palsy. While he lay dying in a morphine-induced coma, his mother, Andrea, was forced by the Florida Education Department to provide documents proving that he was unable to take the state-mandated test. It wasn’t enough to say that her son was dying.
Now there’s a new testing outrage in Florida — at least a new one that has been made public. And this one involves a student who was willing to take the mandated test.
This story involves Pinellas County parent Elizabeth Shea and her 9-year-old autistic son, whom she does not want to name. Shea’s son attends the online Florida Virtual School and is required to take the state-mandated standardized test at a neighborhood public school. He went to do so recently with his service dog. Because he is too young to handle the dog alone, his mom has become a certified dog handler, and she accompanied him to the test site. He has an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, which is designed to ensure “that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives specialized instruction and related services.”
The dog apparently wasn’t part of those related services. Testing administrators at the school would not allow Shea to stay in the testing room with the dog, leading to an incident that left her son in tears — and unable to take the exam. Asked about the episode, Lisa Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas school district, said in an e-mail:
Pinellas County Schools works in coordination with the Florida Department of Education and parents to ensure compliance with federal law is followed. The school district worked with this family and has ensured the student had the proper accommodations before the testing period closed.
Here’s Shea story, which she shared with Florida Opt Out and which I am republishing with permission:
“My son reported to his local school, as required, to take the FSA this morning. He is autistic and has an IEP and a service dog. I am a certified dog handler because he is too young to handle the dog alone. We had arranged months ago through IEP meetings, supplying all paperwork, ID, records, that the dog would report with him for any testing, both with the school district and the FLVA where he is a student.
“Soon after we arrived, I was asked to leave the private testing room, which I cannot legally do as the dog handler. A service dog must be under the control of its handler at all times. I explained the laws. The proctor left the room to call the administrators. While we waited, I texted my son’s dad that there was some hold up with me handling the dog. He was dropping our daughter at school nearby, so he came over.
“He, the vice principal and the proctor returned to the room, where my son and his dog were quietly sitting and waiting with me. They said I could not stay in the room with my son and his dog. They said I could wait outside the door and peek through a window. But again, I have to hold the dog’s leash as I am the handler responsible for him while he works for my son. I told them to just let him minimally participate then, sign the booklet and break the seal.
“They told me this would invalidate his test, to which I agreed. But once again, they would not let him do that with his dog and me in the room, and he was getting visibly upset because they were making me leave the room with his dog. He started crying, babbling loudly and hitting himself in the face. I had to get down on my knees in front of him, face to face, put my hands on his shoulders and tell him that I would be right outside the door with his dog, he would sign his name and we could leave… hoping he would calm down. But then, they decided that me being outside the door with the dog (that his IEP says should be with him) would violate his IEP, so we could not do that either.
“We left without being allowed to take the test, or even minimally participate. I hope they work this out by tomorrow, Thursday and Friday, when we are required to report for more testing. At this point, all we want is for him to minimally participate as required by law, with his service dog and handler present, as required by federal law, and school district policy.”
For some time, parents have been expressing concern about how rigid school districts are in fulfilling testing mandates for students, especially those with severe disabilities. Here’s a video from November, showing a parent named Rick Shea addressing the Pinellas County School Board about this issue.
To be clear: Service dogs are generally allowed by law to be anywhere the person to which it is assigned is — and in a child’s case, the person who handles the dog is considered an assistive device. Opt Out Florida quotes from Ferrara Fiorenza, a New York law firm specializing in school law:
“While you may have concerns over permitting a service dog in your schools, the new regulations limit the circumstances under which schools can exclude these animals. Generally, service dogs cannot be barred from schools because of unsubstantiated health, sanitation, or safety concerns. Moreover, the dogs may go anywhere pupils are permitted, including classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias. For example, if a teacher or another student is allergic to dog dander, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) suggests that he or she be placed in a different classroom than an individual using a service dog.”
According to Opt Out Florida, parents have been reporting incidents in which administration and staff at their children’s school have been pushing them not to opt out, sometimes with intimidation.
Meghan Collins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said in an e-mail that she could not comment on a specific student but provided the following:
For security purposes, the Department’s policy is that only students taking the assessment and authorized school personnel are permitted in the room while a statewide standardized assessment is being administered. However, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are critical to students’ academic success, and we do make exceptions to honor the requirements outlined in a student’s IEP. There has been at least one instance in which a service animal was part of a student’s IEP, and the Department provided the following guidance to the district to implement the student’s accommodation during testing:
- The parent will be allowed in the testing room as handler for the service dog.
- The parent must be informed of and provided copies of the Florida Test Security Statute (1008.24) and Florida State Board of Education Test Security Rule (6A-10.042).
- The parent must agree to adhere to all test security policies and procedures, including the electronic devices policy.
- The configuration of the testing room must ensure that the parent does not view secure test materials.
- The parent must not communicate or interact with the student during testing. If the student needs assistance that requires the parent’s involvement, the student should take a break until testing can be resumed.