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High Schoolers’ Walkout Protests Warwick Schools’ Special Education Practices

[CREDIT: Beth Hurd] About 100 high school students participated in a walk-out this afternoon to protest special education practices outside the Warwick Public Schools Administration Building, 34 Warwick Lake Ave.
[CREDIT: Beth Hurd] About 100 high school students participated in a walk-out this afternoon to protest special education practices outside the Warwick Public Schools Administration Building, 34 Warwick Lake Ave.
WARWICK, R.I. — About 100 students participated in a walkout Wednesday at about 1 p.m. during fifth period in protest of class sizes they and some parents claim violate several special education students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 education plans.

The protest included students from Toll Gate and Pilgrim High Schools, said organizer Zach Colon, class president at Toll Gate. Colon sent a text message rallying young people at both high schools on Monday:

[box]My name is Zach Colon, Senior Class President at TG, and as some of you may have heard, I, along with a few fellow classmates, am planning a student walkout  in protest of the unfair treatment and the blatant disregard for special education students’ educational needs.

On Tuesday the 13th, School Committee member Karen Bachus proposed to conduct a third party investigation into any misconduct involving students’ IEP’s and 504 plans and and anything not being followed within them. Not a single member of the school committee bothered to even second the motion, thus letting it fail.

Although an investigation is being performed by the RI Department of Education, the push for an outside source to investigate is vital. For this reason, I am planning a walkout for Wednesday, December 21st at 12:57pm (which is a B-Day according to the school schedule). The plan is as follows:

– At 12:57, after 4th lunch and period 4 has ended, instead of reporting to period 5, head straight for the soccer field. – Once we meet there, we will make sure everyone knows where we are going. At this point, we will discuss chants and any other info we will all need to know.

– From the benches, we will go to our cars and drive to the Warwick Public Schools Administration Building (34 Warwick Lake Ave, Warwick, RI 02889) which is a 10-15 minute drive from TG

– I will have signs in my car, and we will march in front of the building along the sidewalk.

– I am also trying to incorporate Pilgrim High School into this as well, so we can have even more support. EXTREMELY IMPORTANT INFORMATION – NO TEACHERS OR ADMINISTRATION CAN KNOW ABOUT THE WALKOUT OR ANY PLANS INVOLVING THIS – PARTICIPATE AT YOUR OWN RISK Although punishment is unlikely in such large numbers, it is still possible!

– Since we will be driving, this will mainly be seniors and juniors that drive. If you are on a sports team and are someone who does not have your license, feel free to get a ride from someone, but only if you have parent/guardian permission to drive with this person to go to practices or games. – IF YOU ARE DRIVING SOMEONE, YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEM! YOU MUST BE ABLE TO GET THEM HOME AS WELL, OR HAVE A PLAN FOR TRANSPORTATION OTHERWISE.

– We do not know how long this will go, but I don’t expect it to be hours and hours long.

– WEAR SCHOOL COLORS/UNIFORMS/JERSEYS TO SHOW PRIDE – If you do not feel comfortable participating, I beg you to please not tell anyone about this, as it needs to be a secret from admin/teachers because we can’t get them involved.[/box]

Individual Education Plan (IEPs) and 504 education plans offer formal help for K–12 students with learning and attention issues. They are established in public education by the The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, respectively.

“I planned the walkout because I believe that students throughout the district are being mistreated. Students with IEP’s in 504’s aren’t getting all the services they need. Class weighting was done away with,” Colon said when reached Wednesday afternoon.

Weighting is a practice where special education students are counted as more than one student when determining class size.

“Now classes have 28 students with 15 students with IEP’s or 504’s. When the class was weighted this would come out to about 35 students which should be way over maximum. I believe that a third party investigation is necessary in order to find any misconduct or illegal activity going on in the Warwick public schools,” Colon said.

Parents’ complaints about special education services was also the crux of a no-confidence vote for Superintendent Phil Thornton in November. The petition on currently has 487 supporters.

The topic has also received the attention of the Warwick City Council, which passed two resolutions Monday night calling for an investigation of the Warwick School Department’s Special Education services; one requesting the RI Department of Education to make an investigation, and another seeking an independent investigation of the department. Mayor Scott Avedisian has signed the request for a RIDE investigation.

Wednesday’s student protesters were willing to talk about the issue, though they expressed a preference for an independent inquiry.

“I know people who have 504s and IEPs, and they’re not being treated as they should be,” said one 17-year-old, a senior at Pilgrim High.

“I spoke with a few students that not only are in large classes, but have lost their resource classes, or are just simply getting behind in their work because they are trying to keep up with a pace that is too fast for them,” Colon said.

“I didn’t want to skip school but this is a good cause,” said another 17-year-old, who said she had to skip her last class of the day to attend the protest. Her fellow Pilgrim student said he also skipped his last class to participate in the walk-out.

“It was scary,” the 17-year-old Pilgrim girl said.

Superintendent Phil Thornton could not be immediately reached for comment, but ABC6 Tweeted his statement on the protests:

“We are implementing what are fundamentally recognized across the state and across the country as best practices in special education services. These are practices and procedures that should’ve been implemented in Warwick ten years ago. It is unfortunate that a small number of people are protesting these long overdue initiatives and it is troubling that this same small group of folks is encouraging others to protest programs that are specifically designed to provide all our students with the best teaching and learning we can provide,” the statement reads.


Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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