The “million dollar question” for those affected by autism – according to many parents, educators and advocates – is what has caused the widely perceived “epidemic” of the disorder in recent years.
For one school with locations in Woodside and Glen Cove, however, that question has been overshadowed by another: Why the State Education Department (SED) will not lift a cap limiting the number of autistic and special needs students the school can accommodate.
That issue has evolved into a seven-year, seven-figure courtroom battle between the SED and the School for Language and Communication Development (SLCD) – a state-funded, private, non-profit institution.
Opened 23 years ago in Glen Cove to address the needs of children with autism and language disorders, SLCD’s Nassau County location continues to house the program’s preschool, kindergarten and elementary school children.
Three years ago, SLCD Executive Director Dr. Ellenmorris Tiegerman expanded her program into the shuttered St. Mary’s parochial school in Woodside. Nestled onto a quiet stretch of 47th Avenue, the Woodside program was designed to cater to the growing number of middle and high school children in need of specialized education for autism and other developmental disorders.
The Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD), one of a few state agencies that serves people with autism, attests to a significant increase in the prevalence of the disorder.
“No OMRDD diagnostic trend, per OMRDD’s Comprehensive Five Year Plan 2008-2012, has been more significant than the increase over the last two decades of the percentage with people with autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) served by OMRDD,” said Nicole Weinstein, an agency spokesperson. Weinstein added that among those served by OMRDD from 1989 to 2008, the number of individuals diagnosed with an ASD increased 350 percent.
In Woodside, SLCD currently educates 115 sixth- through eleventh-graders and school officials hope to welcome twelfth-graders next year. But space has become a nagging issue.
“You have kids who are 19, 20 years old with younger kids,” Tiegerman said, explaining that she hopes to move her high school students to a new location, possibly into an existing parochial school in Richmond Hill. “High school students need vocational training, they need to be prepared for independent living and jobs – that’s very specialized space.”
Unfortunately for SLCD, the SED considers Richmond Hill’s Our Lady of the Cenacle school, which Tiegerman had been considering – or any other location for that matter – to be superfluous space.
In a December 2008 letter to Tiegerman, Susan Bandini, the SED’s Regional Associate for Special Education Quality Assurance, wrote that her agency had determined that “regional need for an additional 18 classes” – for the 85 existing SLCD high school students as well as those transitioning into the program – “is not warranted for the 2009/2010 school year.”
Bandini mentioned that a forthcoming capital construction project would result in a new city high school scheduled to open in September 2009 that would accommodate 192 students with disabilities. The new school, Bandini went on, would address the needs of high school students currently on the waiting list for specialized education programs.
While the SED would not answer questions because of the ongoing litigation with the school, SLCD says its waiting list alone exceeds 300 children. Many of those children are from Long Island, where their parents say there is a lack of programs for children with language and developmental disabilities beyond elementary school age. However, the SED mandates that SLCD accept only students from the five-boroughs, with the exception of children who receive special permission from their district.
Lynn Koufakis, a mother of two autistic children, is one of those aggrieved Long Island parents.
“The school in Long Island is like a warehouse,” Koufakis said of the specialized program she claims is the only option for Long Island graduates of SLCD’s Glen Cove branch. “I’m not interested in warehousing my kid – I’m interested in my kid reaching his potential.”
Walking through SLCD’s Woodside campus on a recent morning, Assistant Director Robert Schmidt peeked into classrooms and waved at small groups of students as he underscored the “individualized attention” his program provides; SLCD’s student-to-teacher ratios, he said, would never exist in a public school.
Students at SLCD take traditional classes but they also receive instruction in socialization and role-playing, explained Schmidt, who has 37 years experience as a psychologist in New York City public schools. Without access to such a specialized program, he emphasized, students like those at SLCD would “fall through the cracks.”
Seventeen-year-old Julius Sevilla has been at SLCD for three years but still recalls the regular fights at his old public school. The environment at SLCD, he said, is “nice” and “friendly” and he added, “The teachers treat you right.” Sevilla, who just passed two Regents exams, aims to be a stockbroker – and SLCD’s goal, school officials say, is to help students like him come as close to achieving their dreams as possible.
“If you have a child that may be talking about becoming a veterinarian – maybe they’re not good at science, but you don’t want to kill the dream,” said SLCD Parent Liaison Toya Davis. “Maybe they can be a veterinary aide.”
Davis, whose autistic son Jonathan graduated cum laude from Howard University with a degree in print journalism a few years ago, praised SLCD’s students and faculty for their achievements – despite a lack of space and an absence of resources that more space would allow.
“Imagine what they could do” if they had the proper tools, Davis said. “Imagine what they could do.”
For now, though, SLCD’s 2002 lawsuit with the SED regarding a student cap drags on – Tiegerman called the litigation “rather contentious” and thinks SLCD may be suffering from subsequent SED retribution – and the school’s plans for expansion into Richmond Hill are stalled.
“Do you know what I could’ve done with all that money?” Tiegerman asked of the $1 million SLCD has had to raise to cover the expenses of the proceedings. “The programs in the school? It’s a disgrace.”