Concerns over education programs for disabled children in Hamilton County schools prompted two parents to address the County Commission Thursday, with both saying they did not know where else they could go to express their worries.
D.R. Fraley and Christa French, both parents of students with special needs, addressed the commission following their agenda session. It was Fraley's third straight week speaking to the group, and he said that since he had started publicly airing his concerns about programs, multiple parents of disabled students had reached out to him to voice similar complaints about their experiences.
"Regrettably, this issue is not just about one child, one teacher and one school," Fraley said. "As I've come forward and stepped out and shared our story, I'm hearing from other parents in Chattanooga, throughout the state and in states beyond, saying that they're going through the same issue."
Fraley has recently chosen to home-school his daughter—who has cerebral palsy, autism and scoliosis, among other disabilities—after her teacher at East Lake Academy was suddenly removed from her post without explanation. During his remarks, Fraley read a letter written to him by a mother who had removed her 12th-grade student from county schools after her learning styles were not being met.
"This is just one letter. I have about 30 so far," he said.
Christa French, another parent who addressed commissioners, also recently opted to home-school her daughter, who has developmental and genetic disorders. French was moved to tears during her remarks and claimed that several special needs teachers and parents were afraid to speak publicly on any issues.
"There are people who are afraid to tell you what's going on because of what's going on," she said. "I'm here representing them, and if you can close your eyes and imagine 200 people behind me, that's what's really going on."
French later said she knew of parents of disabled students in the school system who had cited cases of abuse and neglect with their children.
A few commissioners spoke with the parents after the meeting.
Margaret Abernathy, director of exceptional education for the Hamilton County Department of Education, said that in the case of the removed teacher at East Lake Academy, the decision had been a "personnel issue" and that she was not authorized to comment on it. She also said she had not been made aware of any cases or allegations of abuse or neglect of students with disabilities.
"I have not been alerted to any staff or student abuse situations," Abernathy said. "Whenever that happens, my office investigates it, we alert human resources, and we are required by law to have to report it to protective services."
Abernathy added that all programs being offered for students with special needs across the county were being run by certified staff, despite not being available in every single school. Abernathy said that he school system is not required to implement specialized classes in every one of its schools but does serve close to 8,500 students with disabilities across the county.
Abernathy invited any concerned parents to contact her or her staff.
"We always want to talk to parents if they have a concern," she said.