Over the course of two school years, Oakland Beach Elementary teacher Mary Chisholm tried – without success – to get additional special education support due to a fellow teacher in her co-taught classroom being chronically absent.
When she went over the district’s head and complained to the Rhode Island Department of Education in early March, she was forced to go on leave and remains there today.
That, at least, is the story portrayed by Chisholm’s attorneys in a complaint filed in Providence District Court on April 23.
The complaint alleges that the Warwick School Department failed to provide adequate special education services to the six students with individual education programs (IEPs) in Chisholm’s first-grade classroom, and then retaliated against her when she made a complaint to RIDE.
The nature of the suit revolves around the “collaborative classroom” teaching model utilized in Warwick, which places a general education teacher – like Chisholm – with a special education-certified teacher in order to better handle the individualized needs of students in the class. At the first-grade level, there is a teaching assistant assigned to co-taught classroom as well.
The suit alleges that between the 2017-18 school year, the special education teacher in Chisholm’s classroom was absent 68 days and, as of the time of the filing, they were absent 55 days of the current school year. These absences amounted to significant amount of missed hours of individual, specialized teaching in line with the students’ IEPs, the suit claims.
It also states that Chisholm tried numerous times over the two school years to get a substitute teacher trained in special education to cover for the absences, but one was never provided. When a substitute was provided, it was someone only trained to instruct general education students.
“In both October, 2018 and March, 2019, the Plaintiff complained to [Director of Special Services] Dr. [Jennifer] Connolly about the lack of a special education substitute in her classroom,” the complaint reads. “In response, Dr. Connolly told the Plaintiff that there was a lack of special education substitutes in Warwick and throughout the entire State of Rhode Island and that there was nothing she could do to provide assistance.”
On some occasions, the complaint states, the general education substitute was pulled out of Chisholm’s classroom to be sent on other assignments due to a lack of substitutes available in the district. When Chisholm protested by reasoning her co-taught classroom required at least two teachers, she “was told that having two teachers in her classroom was not considered a ‘priority.’”
On March 6, 2019, Chisholm told School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus that she had spoken with a RIDE official to file a complaint about her grievances. Bachus then informed Superintendent Philip Thornton, Connolly and Director of Elementary Education Lynn Dambruch.
Then, on the same day, Chisholm was visited in her classroom by Connolly and Dambruch to conduct a review on the level of services provided to one of the students with additional needs in the classroom “for approximately 20 minutes.”
“Within hours” of that analysis, Chisholm was contacted by Executive Director of Human Resources Katherine Duncanson, who asked Chisholm if she would like to placed on leave because Connolly and Dambruch “thought [Chisholm] seemed stressed and needed a few days off.” Chisholm declined, to which Duncanson allegedly responded, “Then I am putting you on administrative leave because two people made a complaint about you to DCYF [the Department of Children, Youth and Families].”
The suit states those complaints were “fabricated” and not properly investigated, and that the day after Chisholm was placed on leave, “the Defendants [Warwick Public Schools] for the first time in nearly two years assigned a substitute special education teacher to the Plaintiff’s classroom. This occurred one day after Dr. Connolly directly told the Plaintiff again that there was a shortage of special education teachers in the City, and in the entire State.”
The complaint states that the district reached out and inquired about Chisholm returning to work in a different first-grade classroom at Oakland Beach, a request that Chisholm refused.
“On March 24, 2019, the Plaintiff was told by her Union President [Darlene Netcoh] that the Defendants now did not want to have her teaching in a classroom because they have ‘grave concerns’ about her even being in a classroom,” the suit reads.
The complain alleges that Chisholm suffered from work-related stress and anxiety as well as “associated symptoms such as elevated blood pressure and difficulty breathing” due to the events it describes, which required her to seek medical attention. Chisholm is seeking back pay, compensatory damages for emotional pain, suffering and inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life.
Classroom parents support Chisholm
Jammie Boullier is the mother of one of the six students with an IEP in Chisholm’s classroom for the current school year. Meghan Simas is the mother of a general education student in the same class. On Tuesday, they both adamantly defended Chisholm and reprimanded the district for putting her on leave and failing to adequately communicate to parents what was happening.
“She has been doing this since last school year, and nothing was done since last school year,” Simas said. “She’s been complaining about the same teacher having the same amount of absences, not having a substitute or not having an adequate substitute, and it’s just carried over to this year.”
Boullier said the classroom is made more challenging for Chisholm and the other students because one student in particular has more significant behavioral issues, which leads them to hit other students, have loud outbursts and even throw desks and chairs. She said that Chisholm had been doing her best to handle the complicated situation, but was also asking for help from the district and received none.
“Since February, I have begged for support for Mary. Even this child is suffering,” Boullier said. “[They] don’t have the right services. Whatever it is, it’s affecting the entire class.”
“It’s not a safe environment for anybody,” Simas said. “I want to stress that we’re not trying to pick on this one child. [They] are definitely not getting the services that [they] need. I can’t imagine what goes through that little [child]’s mind all day. Because they’ve got to be distracted and overwhelmed and is not getting the teacher they’re supposed to be used to.”
Boullier and Simas both said the district did not communicate that Chisholm had been put on leave. They found out through their own inquiries and talking with their children about her being absent for many days in a row. They worry that, since Chisholm is gone, a revolving door of substitutes is not good for either the general education students or those with IEPs.
“None of this was communicated at all,” Simas said. “I was never notified of anything, and my child is affected just as much.”
“I want Mary Chisholm back in the room,” Boullier said. “I want the hours that are owed to my daughter … I feel that they should do the right thing. These are our kids. And you wonder why the district is moving away and people aren’t enrolling in your schools. Maybe if you got your stuff together, we wouldn’t be here now.”
Thornton said the matter was a personnel issue and he could not comment. Chisholm did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.
According to the suit, Chisholm had been teaching in Warwick for nearly 29 years and has received numerous accolades, including first runner-up for Rhode Island Teacher of the Year.