Lee's Summit families start autism support group
Group bonds together in time of funding shortfall for special education
By Chase Jordan
Sherri Tucker and her family moved to Lee's Summit because she believed her son would receive the best education here.
Jacob was diagnosed with autism 11 years ago. He is now 14 years old.
"I chose where we moved in Kansas City, solely on my son. I didn't care about location. I wanted to live where Jacob had the best opportunity," Tucker said. "We moved here when he was in kindergarten."
The family is not pleased with the R-7 School District.
"We can be living in Raytown or Independence and pay less tax and pay less for the water bill and still not get any worse of an education," Tucker said.
In November 2006, Tucker and Debra Shaumeyer created the Lee's Summit Autism Support Group. Shaumeyer is the mother of a 5-year-old autistic son.
"What we want to do is get the school district to work with us to give the best education they can. In the sate of Missouri that's not an easy thing to do," Tucker said. "Most of the time we talk about what goes on in the school district."
Tucker described Individualized Education Plan meetings, which are attended by seven to 15 school officials.
"So you sit there and these people tell you that your child is never going to be normal, which is a very hard thing to handle," Tucker said. "You assume that these people are giving you all the right information and you believe them and you sign on the dotted line. What you never find out is that those people are never going to give you what you need until you're smart enough to know what you need and you fight for it."
Tucker said Missouri is 48th in the country for special education funding.
"In the state of Missouri, when your kid gets diagnosed with autism, the doctor ways go forth, you're done, and you're on your own," she said. "We're working on legislative issues and trying to work with the school district."
Senator Matt Bartle, of Lee's Summit, said Missourians are not interested in raising taxes. He said Missourians rejected the last seven ballot proposals to raise taxes. (
"We're ranked 48 or 49 in a lot of things," Bartle said. "We're a low spending state because we're a low taxing state."
Bartle said autism is a problem that Missouri is going to have to deal with.
"Autism is a growing problem in Missouri and in the United States, and it's putting a strain on social services and the school system," he said. "We have to figure out what's causing autism. It's a major cost drainer in Medicaid and the education budget."
According to the Lee's Summit group, there are more than 210 students diagnosed with autism in the district. They believe that the teachers in the district should be trained in autism.
"A lot of these kids with autism are in special education, so their teacher would be trained in autism," Tucker said. "But my son is not in special ed, he's in regular ed. So he has seven teachers everyday that don't have a clue and they're going to educate my son."
Tucker said there have been times when her son became sick or had "meltdowns" because of the different expectations of teachers.
Jerry Keimig, R-7 director of special services, said that it is not possible to train every teacher in the district.
"We provide the most comprehensive autism training than any other school district that I'm aware of," Keimig said. "It's not feasible to train every teacher for every disorder. There are 50 to 60 different medical or emotional diagnoses."
The district hosted a four-day workshop in June.
"We try to make autism a priority. I don't know any other disability that we do four-day workshops on," Keimig said.
Stacey Martin, autism specialist, said about 75 people participated in the workshop.
"We try to target those teachers who have not had training before. We do our very best to make sure they have the training they need to meet the needs of students," Martin said. "We are always looking for new things to learn about autism. We're always eager to help these kids."
Superintendent Dr. David McGehee said it would be difficult to make every teacher an expert, but believes they should have some basic knowledge of autism if they are teaching a diagnosed child.
"There are opportunities for the teachers to be trained," McGehee said. "You can't deal with all students the same because they have different needs. It's a challenge in today's education system."
McGehee said the support group does a good job dealing with autism.
"I appreciate Mrs. Tucker's approach in the group. I don't look at them as antagonist or anything because we need to find a common ground," McGehee said. "Sometimes people perceive it as a fight. I perceive it as continuing dialog."
Tucker said she wants to work with the school district to improve in this area.
"I don't want to be negative, but I want to let people know there're other people with the same issues," Tucker said. "I want people to know that we need to progress in this area."
Today, out of the 17,000 students who attend Lee's Summit's 17 elementary schools, three middle schools and five high schools, 98 kids meet the educational definition of autism ("A developmental disability which may occur concurrently with other disabilities ... behaviorally defined to include disturbances in four areas: developmental rates or sequences; responses to sensory stimuli; speech, language cognitive capacities, nonverbal communication; and capacities to relate to people, events, objects, and which adversely affect educational performance," according to the Missouri Autism Resource Guide by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri Department of Mental Health). More than 250 other students fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, with a variety of psychological conditions characterized by abnormal social interaction or communication.
The district doesn't have specific classes for children with autism because the symptoms differ from one student to the next. General special-education classes range from groups of 10 students to a one-on-one, teacher-student setting, though many special-needs students are in regular classrooms.
"As a subpopulation, autism is growing pretty fast. I hear all the time from parents who move here because of our special-education programs," Keimig tells The Pitch. "I think you'd certainly find people who believe it's not all it's cracked up to be, but lots of people here are very, very pleased."
Keimig touts Lee's Summit's teacher training program: two four-day sessions a year to refresh teachers on recognizing autistic behaviors and dealing with autistic students. But these sessions aren't mandatory, and there are no special incentives for teachers to attend. Of the district's 1,264 teachers, fewer than 80 attended the most recent sessions; half of those who did, Stacy Martin says, came from schools outside the Lee's Summit district.
However, their scores fell far short of the "Adequate Yearly Progress" goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act. (The same was true for students for whom English was a second language.) As a result, the entire district was given a failing grade.
District Superintendent David McGehee made sure that parents knew which students were at fault. "The scores of students in these two subgroups are the sole reason our district was designated in this category," he wrote in an August 17, 2007, letter to district parents.
In addition to the popular four-day workshop, the R-7 School District offers workshops on functional communication, applied behavior analysis, and other topics related to the field of autism. The purpose of these workshops is to provide staff and parents with quality training on a variety of issues facing those working with children with autism spectrum disorders. (According to Jerry Keimig, regular education teachers and paras will only receive this training if they do it on their own time. The district will not pay them to attend this workshop. Many children with autism are in regular education classes with teachers that have no training in their disability. )
STARS was so successful during its first year that the R-7 School District implemented PASS (Promoting Academic and Social Success), a similar program for kindergarten students enrolled at Longview Farm Elementary. Both programs have generated interest among other school districts throughout the region. (One student that was in the STARS program regressed so much that the parent had to remove him and send him to a private school in Kansas. Another family had to remove all five of their children because of psychological damage that was done to their children. Still another family had to remove their child from PE because Jerry Keimig refused them the alternative of adaptive PE without any basis. When the family found out that the teacher was the adaptive PE teacher and met with him, he told the family that he knew more about this child than any "Autism specialist, any psychologist, or the mother. He went on to say that he would push this autistic child socially, emotionally, and physically beyond his comfort level. When the administration was notified of this they stated that the family would have to get a note from their physician before the child would be taken out of PE. The family's psychologist quickly complied as to avoid further damage to this child.) This program was taken from a copywrited program and used without the publisher's permission. They have only used part of it. They used district money to bring the publisher to Kansas City to provide a seminar and then failed to use the whole program and used part of the program without permission. This conference was James Partington.