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Parents of city students in special ed call for action

May 3, 2018

At a protest, parent and advocate Ana Casserly speaks out for families of students with disabilities.
Credit Veronica Volk / WXXI News

Editor's note: The tragic death of a Rochester School District special education student who wandered away from his school unnoticed stunned and outraged the community. In the first of two stories about the district's special education program, parents of students with disabilities are calling for changes.

The Rev. Marilyn Cunningham is pastor of Graves Memorial CME Church in Rochester. She’s also a mother and grandmother.

Cunningham said her experience with the Rochester City School District special education spans decades. She had children in the system, and now she has grandchildren with special needs as well.

Reverend Marilyn Cunningham (left) stands with the Director of Advocacy with the Children's Agenda, Bridget Hurley (right).
Credit Twitter

“Special needs. It says something. It’s just not a word -- it says, ‘I need special attention.”

Overall, she said, her experience has mostly been good, but over the last few school years, she has seen special education classrooms understaffed and students underserved.

Specifically last year, the district eliminated 11 coordinating administrators of special education, or CASEs, who are supposed to help keep parents, teachers and students on track in their individual education plans.

“And I said no way. How are our kids going to be able to make it with such a reckless new way of doing special ed?”

That’s when Cunningham said she was finally moved to action. She said she started talking to everyone she knew in the district, and also started writing letters.

“In the letters that I wrote to the district, I kept saying, 'This is an accident in the making. What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for something bad to happen in the district?' ”

And then, something did.

Trevyan Rowe, 14
Credit Provided

The morning of March 8, police received several 911 calls about a young man spotted on the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge. Police now believe that young man was Trevyan Rowe, a 14-year-old student at School 12, who was in special education. Several days later, Trevyan was found drowned in the Genesee River.

Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams has said they are still trying to find out what exactly happened, and what the school could have done differently to prevent his death.

“As has been widely reported, we’ve been engaged in an extensive investigation concerning the tragic death of Trevyan Rowe,” Deane-Williams said at a news conference.

But despite this tragic incident in an otherwise chaotic year, parents are feeling more empowered than ever to have their voices heard.

This year, Cunningham was asked to be the leadership chair of the newly formed Special Education Parent Advisory Council. The group -- which includes parents, teachers and administrators -- meets monthly, invites all parents to come, and answers questions about navigating the special education system.

“The goal in my heart is to see parents educated and become advocates.”

Even though the group is in its first year, Cunningham said she hopes they can continue to grow and influence decisions like how to allocate resources for students with special needs.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.