Northport SEPTA appeals to board for disabled student needs

Northport SEPTA appeals to board for disabled student needs

School building handicap accessibility, communication between parents and staff at top of list of concerns

Flanked by members of SEPTA, Stacey Riccardi presents a letter of requests for special education students to the Northport-East Northport school board on Monday, June 15. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Parents and teachers of disabled students have called on the Northport-East Northport school board to address issues ranging from communication to handicap accessibility in the district.

The members of the district’s special education parent teacher association, known as SEPTA, presented a letter of requests to the board at its meeting on June 15 on behalf of the more than 900 Northport-East Northport students classified as having a disability.

Stacey Riccardi, SEPTA vice president, presented the letter and urged the board to “ensure that the needs of our most vulnerable students be met.”

The group plans to submit the letter to the board again on July 1, once incoming superintendent Robert Banzer is present.

The letter requests the district conduct an internal audit of the special education department, with the investigation going back to 2010, when the last assistant superintendent of pupil services, John Lynch, retired and the position was eliminated.

Members of SEPTA say that since then, the lines of communication between parents and the administration have been compromised.

“We’re being held at arms-length as parents; there seems to be a disconnect between the parents and the special ed department,” Cathy Josephson, SEPTA recording secretary, said in a phone interview.

Outgoing longtime school board Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr. said another employee absorbed Lynch’s duties, adding that just because a position is eliminated, does not mean those responsibilities are eliminated as well.

“Once Lynch retired, those needs were not ignored; the tasks were taken on under a new title.”

The letter also highlighted other needs, like the elementary and middle school playgrounds becoming compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — for example, being outfitted with special swing sets — as well as school building entrances. SEPTA members pointed out that entrances to multiple schools in the district are not handicap-accessible, or some that are accessible are only open during school hours and are locked after school hours, when clubs are meeting.

Waldenburg countered, however, that, “There is no intent from the board to be out of compliance,” Waldenburg Jr. said.

“Our buildings and grounds team consistently analyze school facilities and completes upgrades through capitol improvement projects, which are reviewed and approved by the State Education Department,” Thomas Caramore,  interim superintendent of Northport-East Northport said in a statement.

Aside from making facilities more accessible for students with special needs, SEPTA is eager for a more inclusive learning environment. Josephson has a daughter in a wheelchair who was enrolled in the Northport-East Northport school district from second grade to eighth grade. However, she attends high school outside the district, at a facility that has the resources to meet her special needs.

“These students live in this community,” Josephson said. “Why can’t they get an education here as well?”

Caramore said that no student in the district has ever been denied services due to accessibility, and that students have remained educated in their home schools.

“Our schools should be as inclusive as possible to ensure the special education student has access to the least restrictive environment,” according to the letter presented to the board. It refers to the fact that many disabled students who live in the Northport-East Northport district, like Josephson’s daughter, do not attend school in the district because the schools do not always have the facilities, programs or educators to ensure a proper education for the them. Disable students are frequently enrolled in BOCES instead.

SEPTA wants special needs students to be able to “access the same school their siblings and neighbors attend.”

Caramore said that the community’s concerns are being heard.

“The board and administration will continue to carefully review the concerns raised by the members of the community.”