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Originally published Friday, March 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle special-ed teachers suspended for refusal to give test

The Seattle School District suspends two special-education teachers at Green Lake Elementary for 10 days without pay for refusing to give their students the WAAS (the WASL alternative for special-needs students). The teachers say they're honoring parent wishes and that the test is inappropriate for their students, who have severe physical and cognitive disabilities.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle School District has suspended two special-education teachers for refusing to give required assessment tests to six students at Green Lake Elementary, despite orders from the principal to do so.

Lenora Stahl and Juli Griffith each were suspended for 10 days without pay for not following through with training and reports required for the Washington Alternative Assessment System (WAAS), a version of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning intended for students with special needs.

"I understand that you are taking this position as a matter of principle," says a March 2 letter to the teachers from Seattle Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. But because giving the test is a state requirement, "you as a member of our staff have a responsibility to do so."

The suspension runs through March 16.

The teachers say they merely followed the wishes of the parents, who exercised their rights — verbally at first, then in writing — to have their children "opt out" of the exam.

"They're sticking up for my kid and what I want for my child," parent Rachel McKean said. "They know what he can and can't do. They're not just going out on a limb."

Goodloe-Johnson's letter said the teachers didn't tell the district of the parents' involvement until disciplinary hearings had begun.

"With any students, but particularly those with special needs, and especially in instances when we have a federal and a state mandate to follow, documentation is essential," Seattle Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer said.

Stahl and Griffith are teaching partners at Green Lake, with a class of 11 special-education students. Many are far below their various classifications as kindergarten through fifth-grade level. Some are prone to seizures or have respiratory issues.

McKean's son Jackson, 10, has hydrocephalus and uses a wheelchair. In four-plus years at Green Lake, he has learned to feed himself, hang up his jacket and not to scream when he hears loud noises. "My kid is basically the equivalent of a toddler," McKean said. "You wouldn't ask a toddler these questions when they can't do it. ... You wouldn't give a kid a test that is years beyond what they can do."

According to Nate Olson of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the WAAS can be tailored to students' individual needs, but parents and teachers dispute that. Because the test is grade-level-based, they say, it's inappropriate for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

"It's really not a one-size-fits-all for kids," Stahl said. "It doesn't mean we don't have high expectations; we do. They're just not there yet."

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She and Griffith first raised concerns about the test last fall, Stahl said, after parents told them they didn't want their children taking the exam. The two teachers wrote the district asking to work together to create a more appropriate test for their children, but received no response, she said.

Many of the children had taken the test the previous year, Stahl noted, and all received zeros. "They're automatically being set up for failure," she said.

When McKean's son was given the exam last year, she said, he just sat there. "He doesn't read or write," McKean said. "... He's just learning how to draw straight lines. But doing a two-plus-two math problem, he doesn't really understand."

When Principal Cheryl Grinager directed the teachers to complete the required exam preparation, they refused — again, Stahl said, in deference to parental wishes.

She said the "opt-out" process never was explained to them fully, so they didn't know until January, when they were called to a disciplinary hearing, that written parental requests were required. By mid-February, the teachers had collected written letters from the parents, but the disciplinary process continued. The two are appealing the suspension.

While the appeal may restore their lost pay, Stahl said, "we can't get back the time we lose in the classroom. The bottom line is, they're punishing the students."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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