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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fight Continues/Parents Protest R-7 Official's Autism Presentation

Parents protest R-7 official’s autism presentation

By Brett Dalton, The Journal Staff

A series of meetings that may have eased the tension between the R-7 School District and the Lee’s Summit Autism Support Group have been put on hold after members of the LSASG protested a conference at which an R-7 official was speaking.

After Sherri Tucker, co-founder of the LSASG, was unsuccessful in her bid for a seat on the R-7 Board of Education earlier this year, R-7 Superintendent David McGehee reached out to Tucker in hopes the two groups could find at least some common ground.

Tucker and other LSASG members have been consistently outspoken about what they feel is a lack of proper services and programs within the school district for children with special needs. In fact, Tucker admitted freely that she ran in the April election solely on the issue of benefiting students with special needs. And she pulled no punches when criticizing the school district.

While McGehee said there are some issues on which the two sides will always “agree to disagree,” he had hoped that meeting with Tucker on a somewhat consistent basis would help each side understand the other and perhaps common ground could be met — and it worked for a while.

“We had met a couple of times and there were even a couple things that came out of those meetings and we’re now looking into how to get better at those things,” McGehee said. “So I think they were productive — to a point.”

However, on Aug. 4, LSASG members, Tucker included, protested the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Cooperative Conference for School Administrators, which took place at Tan-Tar-A, a family resort in Osage Beach.

Tucker said they protested because Jerry Keimig, R-7’s director of special services, was chosen to speak at the conference based on the school district’s “outstanding programs for students with autism.” Tucker said she was appalled not only to hear that Keimig was chosen to speak but also because of the reason he was chosen. She even accused the school district of lying about why Keimig was chosen.

“They said it was because of their outstanding programs,” Tucker said. “That’s not why they got picked.”

To back up her claim, Tucker points to a recent article in The Pitch detailing the ongoing struggle between the R-7 School District and members of the LSASG. According to the article, which published July 10, Heidi Atkins Lieberman, assistant commissioner of special education for DESE, said she chose Keimig to speak after talking to “people who were very knowledgeable about autism education, and they all said Jerry would be great.”

“So basically Heidi Lieberman asked a few friends about who should speak at the conference,” Tucker said.

Lieberman told the Journal on Thursday that she chose Keimig based on several recommendations from reliable sources.

“Based on recommendations we received from numerous sources, I selected the Kirkwood School District (St. Louis County) and the Lee’s Summit School District to outline their programs,” she said. “Both districts have well-established programs, and they have in-district autism consultants who were trained by Project Access.” Last Monday’s protest was peaceful and consisted of parents, including Deb Shaumeyer and Joyce Lindsey, sitting in lawn chairs for six hours in front of a large sign that read, “Lee’s Summit R-7 & Mo. Dept. of Education Are leaving our Autistic Children Behind.”

Tucker said the protest was perfectly legal and the parents did receive permission from Osage Beach’s chief of police.

But while the protesters were greeted somewhat positively by cars passing by, R-7 officials weren’t amused.

McGehee said he decided to “take a break” from his meetings with Tucker following the protest because he thought the protest proved their meetings to be unproductive. He said he didn’t expect the meetings to end Tucker’s criticism of the school district, but he was hopeful that by gaining a better of understanding of each other, the public attacks would no longer be necessary.
McGehee said the two sides may revisit their discussions in the future, but added that at this time, he doesn’t want to take time to hold meetings that aren’t accomplishing their objective.
“My time is limited, all of our time is limited,” he said. “This is just one of many, many issues we deal with. And it is a very important issue and one I’m continuing to try to learn more about and gain a better understanding of. But at this moment, it’s time to take a break because they didn’t seem to be very productive.”

Tucker said she appreciated the chance to meet with McGehee, but never intended to “remain silent” as a result of their discussions.

“My voice is the only tool I have to help advocate for the children that are affected by autism,” Tucker wrote in a reply to the school district’s letter informing her that the upcoming meetings have been cancelled. “I truly hoped we could work together. I am and have always been willing to give it a try. However, I can not be made to be quiet in the hopes that the situation will work out in favor of our children. It’s a gamble that is too risky and too many lives are at stake.”

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