Columbia School Board candidates discussed the district’s policies on recording and issues around inclusivity in special education at a candidate forum Thursday night.
The forum was held by the Columbia Special Education Parent Teacher Association, which works to support students in the district with special needs. The forum was moderated by SEPTA members Michelle and Andy Ribaudo. Michelle Ribaudo is a former Columbia SEPTA president and founder of the group.
There are five candidates vying for two open seats. Candidates Lucas Neal, Aron Saylor, Katherine Sasser, Jeanne Snodgrass and incumbent Teresa Maledy.
Michelle Ribaudo asked where the candidates stood on the district’s policy about recording Individualized Education Program meetings.
According to the district’s website, the current policy prohibits the use of audio, visual and other recording devices at meetings among district employees and between district employees and guardians. However, parents, guardians and 18-year-old students are permitted to request an exception.
Snodgrass said there is a "huge value to parents being able to record in IEP meetings," given the length, complexity and emotional charge of these meetings. Neal agreed that these meetings can be "intimidating and overwhelming" and that the district should make it as easy as possible for parents to understand what is discussed in IEP meetings. Saylor agreed that parents should be able to record meetings, saying that, if this were to come to a vote, "it would be a yes" from him.
Sasser and Maledy said it is important to consider the interests of all parties involved, including the teachers who have legal concerns that recordings from meetings could be used against them. Both said that proper training for staff is an important part of this discussion to ensure that families are supported and staff are well equipped.
All five candidates stressed the importance of inclusion and equity regarding special education in the district.
Sasser referenced how school building design often decentralizes special education students by isolating them in a separate building.
Maledy said inclusion has always been important to the district and the issue of special education students feeling left out is not a systemic problem in Columbia Public Schools. She said these instances need to be taken up at the building administration level.
Saylor, referencing his own education experience as a student in a smaller public school district, said the district should integrate all students into a single classroom. He said that schools are a training ground for the real world and that "sectioning students off" is not good because it's not how society works.
Snodgrass and Neal emphasized the importance of an individualized approach to special education in the district. Snodgrass said it's important to listen to and respect the decision of families who would want their child to receive a separate education experience because of their specific needs. Neal cautioned against putting students in convenient categories for the sake of efficiency and instead advocated for an individualized approach for students' unique needs.
Michelle Ribaudo asked about the possibility of providing childcare at board meetings, including specific provisions like a sensory room for children with special needs, as a further avenue to promote inclusivity and accessibility.
Neal said providing childcare at meetings is "worth exploring" as the board should take every opportunity to remove obstacles preventing parents from engaging in this space. Maledy noted the variety of existing ways in which parents can communicate with the board other than attending meetings.
Sasser and Snodgrass said that allowing students to be present at the meeting would have a positive change on the culture surrounding board meetings.
"I love the idea of letting more people in and changing the nature of the space to make more people think they belong there," Sasser said.