Is picking up trash, weeding or collecting recyclables part of an appropriate education for special-education students?
Not if their parents don’t give permission, says Bernie Dalien, a father in the Puyallup School District.
Dalien has been picketing district headquarters and Puyallup High School since last Monday to let the public know that he believes special-education students are, as his signs say, “doing janitor work without parent’s knowledge.”
He says his son, 17-year-old Colton Dalien, was routinely collecting recycling paper throughout Aylen Junior High two years ago, but the father didn’t find out until two students told him earlier this year. He wonders if the youth might also have been collecting litter.
Dalien says he plans to picket all junior and senior high schools in Puyallup.
“The demeaning treatment of these students has to stop,” Dalien said. “Most children with disabilities don’t have the ability to self-report, and the district takes advantage of that.”
Since Dalien started picketing, he says students have told him they see special-education students collecting recyclables and garbage and doing yard work at Puyallup High.
Student Emily Ihrig said she sees special-education students collecting recycling materials throughout campus every day, and recently saw them picking up trash after school.
Senior Arianna Singleton said she saw special-education students scraping moss out of sidewalk cracks last year. “They say they have to learn ‘basic skills’ but shouldn’t that be furthering their education and people skills so they can be as successful as possible in every aspect of their lives?” Singleton said.
District spokeswoman Karen Hansen says children of all abilities, including gifted students, might collect recyclables in Puyallup, depending on an individual school’s program.
But special-education students who gather recyclables or clean up school premises are taking the first steps to transition into vocational training.
Some special-education students 16 or older spend part of the day in class and the remainder learning skills to live independently or receive training at a community job site, she said. Though students aren’t routinely picking up trash, they could in the course of learning to landscape.
“A lot of these kids are pretty profoundly disabled. We’re teaching them to conduct sequential activities, to learn how to be responsible so they can find employment,” Hansen said.
Parents would know about the training and independence goals through their child’s Individual Education Plan, though it’s possible they might be unaware of every activity supporting the large goal, she said.
Dalien admits he doesn’t know if other children are performing such tasks without their parents’ permission.
He and his wife, Denise, have been battling the district since 2005, alleging their son has been harassed by classmates and hasn’t received the appropriate instruction and intensive speech therapy he needs to learn.
Colton suffers from Landau Kleffner Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that affects his ability to process sound, which in turn hampers his ability to speak and to learn through verbal instruction. His parents say he can’t express complicated ideas and he can’t focus on lessons in a classroom with common background noises.
He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, which causes him to constantly repeat phrases or motions like switching lights on and off.
While he’s at the primary-grade level on district math and reading tests, Colton’s doctors say he has the capacity to learn much more if he was receiving more visual, computer-based instruction appropriate for his disability, his parents say.
Bernie Dalien says his son is a talented artist with “incredible” computer skills who devours books about history, space and marine life.
“He could be an illustrator,” his father said.
District spokeswoman Hansen declined to comment on Colton’s case because of student privacy laws.
During the parents’ hearing in May challenging Puyallup’s services to Colton, two general education students testified they saw the teen and other special-education students regularly collect recycling paper throughout Aylen Junior High during class time in the 2006-07 school year. A staff member testified Colton gathered recycling at Ferrucci Junior High the previous year.
The Daliens said recycling was never included in Colton’s Individual Education Plan.
The couple’s daughter Brianna told her parents in the 2006-07 year that she was seeing special-education students wiping down and scraping gum off lunch tables, and using their bare hands to pick up condoms, cigarette butts and other trash while she attended Puyallup High.
After hearing that, Bernie Dalien said he told a special-education administrator in 2006-07 that he didn’t want Colton to recycle or collect trash when he went to high school.
“To me they’re throwing in the towel on the academic side,” Dalien said. “I’m not saying anything bad about janitors or landscape people, but don’t limit someone’s future at a young age.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694
Bernie Dalien and supporters with the Wyatt Holliday Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates funding for disabled children, plan to picket at 2 p.m. today at Puyallup High School. Contact Dalien at coltonsvoice@ comcast.net.