For the fourth straight week, the County Commission offered an ear to parents concerned with the experiences of disabled students in Hamilton County schools.
There wasn't much else commissioners could do.
Before listening to the group, commission Chairman Larry Henry told parents that besides heeding their concerns, there wasn't much more they could do to address the situation in a direct way. The commission, whose relationship with the school system exists solely as a funding entity, has no oversight of how schools are run.
"There's not a commissioner up here that's not sympathetic," Henry said. "We've all been directly involved with disabled children through friends and families … we are very sympathetic with you. We can lend an ear, but the bottom line is there's nothing we can really do but listen."
D.R. Fraley, who first aired his concerns over his daughter's experience at East Lake Academy last month, said he understood the commissioners' position but requested the commission approve or oversee a "third-party investigation" into concerns raised over programs offered to students with disabilities and special needs.
Along with Fraley, parents of special needs students have recently stepped forward, citing problems with placement and treatment of their children, along with difficulties in communicating with the school system.
Fraley, who recently opted to pull his daughter out of Hamilton County schools after her teacher was removed without notice or explanation, repeatedly emphasized that his concern was not solely for his daughter.
"This started with just one school, but me coming forward and sharing what happened in one school and one class—which we still don't understand … that's just where I start. And that's not where the rest of this is," Fraley said.
Approximately 25 audience members, many of whom were also parents, stood to show solidarity with Fraley.
Fraley added that after reaching Superintendent Rick Smith yesterday, Smith had scheduled a meeting to discuss his issues on Thursday. Fraley thanked commissioners for allowing him to voice his concerns, suggesting it ultimately helped him reach Smith directly.
"If I haven't said it enough, thank you, gentlemen," he said. "Please understand that you guys are the only ear that we have, and you guys have consistently been here … I honestly don't think I would have reached Superintendent Smith if it had not been for your involvement."
Smith, who was not present at the agenda session, commented later on Wednesday regarding Fraley's concerns. Following a PTA event at Orchard Knob Elementary School, the superintendent said that besides Fraley, he had not received any direct communication from parents of special needs students who were worried about their children's experience in county schools.
"I have not spoken with any other parent," Smith said.
Smith said that in his opinion, public formats such as the County Commission were not the appropriate setting for addressing issues such as Fraley's. Smith added that he would take any issues brought before him and his staff "very seriously," investigating and addressing and claims brought forth.
"I don't particularly think that it's productive to meet in a large group or in a commission meeting," he said. "I'm a parent of a special needs student that went through Hamilton County schools. And I know that from that point of view, I want to handle those things appropriately and with the kind of sensitivity that we need to have for special needs children in the school system."
Smith declined to comment on the removal of a teacher at East Lake Academy, stating it was a "personnel issue."
Standing beside Smith, school board Chairman Mike Evatt said the board would be an appropriate venue for parents to make their concerns known—but only if they had exhausted all other avenues of communication first.
"If they go through the process with the administration first and deal with their issues through the administration, if they still have problems—then we'll hear them," Evatt said. "If they have an issue, you start at the school level."
Many parents also attended the PTA meeting, hoping to speak with Smith and Evatt. Both officials left early to attend a Christmas event at the Hamilton County Courthouse.
The parents who attended both the commission meeting and the PTA meeting Wednesday morning were not the only parents of children with special needs who voiced their opinions on the matter. During the commission meeting, Cynthia Joyner said her family had chosen to school their child in Hamilton County because it was the "best situation" they could possibly be in.
"Not all parents feel the way these parents do," Joyner said. "I don't think it's fair that everyone has something negative to say … Because this has turned into a media frenzy, I do want the media to know that not all parents have this issue with the school district. It's not fair for the media to think we're all out there with sharpened pitchforks and lit torches."
Christa French, another parent who had expressed being unsettled over elements of her daughter's experience in the school system, said she appreciated Joyner's opinion.
"I understand her position, and I completely appreciate her opinion absolutely," French said. "She's presenting a fair balance; I don't want the parents who are having a good experience to feel like they can't come forward as well."
Margaret Abernathy, director of exceptional education for the Hamilton County Department of Education, reiterated later on Wednesday that both she and her department would be willing and "glad" to meet with concerned parents who would make an effort to reach her office.
"If the parents have these concerns, if they would just call me in my office, we would address them," she said. "I'm very concerned that they choose to use the forum of going before the County Commission without having the chance to talk to them. We are glad to talk if they have concerns."
The school board is scheduled to meet in its next quarterly session Dec. 20.