Some special ed parents say they're off to rocky start with new schools head

Updated: Oct. 5, 2017 at 5:26 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The biggest challenge ahead for Hawaii's new head of public schools could be conflicts over how to handle special education.

And some special needs families say new superintendent Christina Kishimoto doesn't seem supportive of their concerns.

While the superintendent says she is working with families, parent group For Our Keiki is taking to social media to share their concerns about the new leader of Hawaii's school district.

Kishimoto started in her role on Aug. 1. Just a month later, she was ruffling feathers at several parent meetings, For Our Keiki parents said.

In one video clip For Our Keiki posted on its Facebook page, Kishimoto responds to a question about how to contact her with this, "I'm not at my desk answering phones and I never will be. I'm going to be very up front about that. This is how I manage. I talk to my kids. I talk to my families."

At a Big Island forum last month, Waimea mother Naomi Tachera said she was shocked when Kishimoto took a microphone away from her.

"I wanted to ask if there are any appropriate licensed credentialed behavioral analysts in the DOE right now," Tachera said.

In the exchange, which was also recorded and posted online, Kishimoto can be seen taking the microphone and saying that she'll answer the question when she has the information.

"I've always been upfront with my data," Kishimoto said, at the meeting, "but I'm not going to be cornered at a community meeting around data that I don't have in front of me because it's not responsible of me."

Tachera, parent of two special needs children, told Hawaii News Now she was flabbergasted.

"I felt like my voice was silenced when she took away the microphone," she said.

Amanda Kelly, a licensed behavioral analyst who's been sharing videos of several meetings on For Our Keiki's Facebook page, said she's been disturbed by how the superintendent is responding to parents' questions.

"This is not how you interface in Hawaii," she said. "I'm obviously not from Hawaii, but you listen to the community."

One in every 10 Hawaii public school students are in special education. That amounts to about 19,000 students. And special education services at Hawaii's public schools have long been a point of concern.

When asked about how she responded to parents at the meetings, Kishimoto said she needs to ensure everyone is heard at meetings when there's limited time.

"I've had great reaction from parents understanding that there's a number of things we need to address in special education services," she said.

She added that she does understand the frustration from the special needs community.

"The parents who are most frustrated right now are the parents who say their needs are not being met and I agree with that," she said.

She pointed out that one of her first actions was to create a community task force on student achievement in special education. She's also working on a long-term plan to address gaps in special education services.

"This is a collaborative approach, at the same time, we are going to be looking at research based practices," said Kishimoto.

Lou Ertescik, director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said it's much too early to tell how Kishimoto will handle the challenges facing special education services.

"I think you kind of have to wait and give people a chance," he said, adding that despite a history of lawsuits and a climate of conflict, he hopes the community can collaborate with the new superintendent.

"People that we work with have been complaining for a long time so she comes in inheriting a system that has a lot of problems in terms of educating special needs children."

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