NICEVILLE — The Florida Department of Education has released its findings on the Okaloosa County School District’s Exceptional Student Education programs.
The FDOE visited Kenwood Elementary School and Silver Sands School on Feb. 5-6 and returned its full report April 4.
The School District said Kenwood and Silver Sands were the two schools chosen for visits because of issues that needed attention.
"The Department of Education asked for two schools to visit, and the district recommended these two specifically due to the incidents that were reported at each school," Assistant Superintendent Steve Horton said. "Both schools have terrific teachers and staffs, but the fact of the matter is there have been issues that we have to address."
Kenwood and Silver Sands schools have been tarnished in recent years by the arrests of teachers accused of abusing special needs children in their care. Silver Sands also had a retired educator stripped of his teaching certification when the state investigated reports of past abuse.
In compiling their report, state officials interviewed five focus groups, including administrators, teachers, behavioral teams, paraprofessionals and parent groups to determine what areas needed improvement within the district's ESE programs. Common themes in all five groups included a need for more professional specialists, further training for teachers and a timely process to make improvements.
The report noted that some positions needed include behavioral specialists, speech and language pathologists, a school counselor, a social worker and a mental health specialist.
Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers said he plans to restructure and realign the district's staff and finances to find money to hire the needed personnel.
“In order to do that it’s going to take a strong financial commitment from me, a strong financial commitment from the School District and from the board,” he said. “I’m very much committed to making these changes. I think first and foremost our ESE students deserve it. I think our teachers deserve it and obviously our parents deserve it.”
The district’s ESE programs have been under scrutiny since August 2017 when Eddie Perillo came forward with information that his autistic son had been abused while enrolled at Kenwood Elementary. The information led to a series of investigations and the arrest of four district officials for child abuse or failing to report child abuse. Pre-K disabled teacher Marlynn Stillions was convicted in 2018 of child abuse and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The scandal also has resulted in a handful of still unresolved lawsuits and ultimately this year's suspension of Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
Following Jackson's suspension, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office announced the arrests of three Silver Sands ESE teachers on charges of aggravated battery. A Shalimar Elementary guidance counselor has also been arrested this year for failing to report child abuse.
During Jackson's tenure, Chambers served as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and took over as assistant superintendent of human resources after the former HR director, Stacie Smith, was arrested and charged with failing to report a child's abuse case.
Chambers said he was aware of problems in the ESE programs during his time under Jackson, specifically the need for more staffing.
"Staffing, over the course of the last couple of years, is something that we’ve discussed in senior staff; it’s one of the things that we’ve looked at," Chambers said. "We’ve made some changes over the course of the last two years as well."
Chambers detailed that over the past two years the School District and School Board members have added several positions to the ESE staff, including an additional ESE specialist, two new staffing specialists, two behavioral analysts and a district staffing specialist.
As for the need for additional ESE training in several areas — from bus drivers to substitute teachers and general education teachers — Chambers said the district plans to implement programs as early as this summer. Parents have also requested information about what resources are available for their children.
“We will be working with organizations to deliver training for our teachers, classroom assistants and our general education teachers on topics such as accommodations and other areas detailed by the report," he said. "We will even take it to the higher levels and the training will be mandatory for our ESE teachers.”
Chambers said he was not surprised by anything in the report because he personally requested the FDOE to assess the ESE program just one week after he took office in mid-January.
“This is a springboard that’s going to help us to do some necessary things for our students,” he said of the report's findings. “Now in my role as superintendent I have even more of an opportunity to make decisions that are going to strengthen our ESE program, and that’s exactly what I’m committed to doing.”
The FDOE will make another visit in the fall. Chambers said he is confidant that state officials will see great improvements in the ESE programs.
"I know that we will have a detailed training program in place for our teachers, classroom assistants and substitutes, and I believe that they will see the efforts we’ve made in communicating with parents and teachers," Chambers said.