Fishing for Integrity in Lakewood

Two weeks ago Jersey Matters interviewed State Senator Robert Singer about Lakewood Public Schools’ practice of placing ultra-Orthodox students with disabilities in expensive private placements like the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence (SCHI) while keeping Black and Brown students with disabilities in-district or sending them to other public placements.

Here’s Singer’s answer:

“They (the school) have tried and worked with the school district in trying to entice Hispanic and African-American children to come there,” Singer said of the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence. “Here’s the problem, and it’s all of us. If I’m Hispanic or I’m African American and I walk into a school and see no other Hispanics or African American(s), is this where I’m placing my child?”

In a phone interview Tuesday with the Asbury Park Press, Singer said it is ultimately families that choose a private school where their student would be most comfortable. Offering a metaphor as an example, he said part of that consideration is finding students who look like their children. “Like everything else – and it’s human nature – we eat with our eyes,” Singer said. “If we don’t like the way it looks, we might not try it.”

Okay. Let’s go with that. According to Singer, whose nephew attends SCHI, Latino and Black Lakewood families walk in and say “the other students here don’t look like my child. Therefore let’s forgo a stellar education for our child, paid for by the district at a tuition rate of $97,000 per year, as well as the costs of a one-on-one aide and transportation.”

Senator, meet Sha’Quan Peace-Doldren. He is African-American. He is developmentally-disabled, as well as blind and deaf, the sort of high-needs student who would presumably justify a sky-high annual tuition.

And he was turned away from SCHI.

Actually, it wasn’t that simple. Sheldon T. Boxer, former principal of the Lakewood public school that Sha’Quan was attending, Oak Street Elementary School,  said that he lied to Sha’Quan’s parents in order to keep the boy in-district with inadequate services. Why would he do such a thing? Because, said Boxer, ““he was afraid he’d lose his job if he didn’t keep a lid on special education expenditures.” In particular, he was afraid he’d “run afoul of Michael I. Inzelbuch, Lakewood’s longtime school board attorney who is also employed as the district’s non public special-education coordinator.” In the article (no longer available online, alas; you can buy a PDF or see here for earlier coverage), Boxer describes IEP meetings where Inzelbuch would “mistreat” and “humiliate those who disagreed with him.”

Sha’Quan’s parents did visit several out-of-district schools, a normal part of the process of determining the most appropriate and least restrictive environment for a child with moderate to severe disabilities. In fact, they visited SCHI.

Peace [Sha’Quan’s mother] said the administrator who led her on a tour of the school was very gracious but told her that SCHI wouldn’t have been a good fit for Sha’Quan because there were no other deaf-blind students being taught there.

Ms. Peace didn’t care if other kids at SCHI — 202 are ultra-Orthodox and one is Latino  – “look like” Sha’quan. Trust me on this, Mr. Singer: parents of children with disabilities — especially parents of children with exceptional needs like Sha’quan — don’t give a fig how the other kids “look.” They want appropriate therapies. They want teachers who maximize potential. They want reliable services. They want a school that sees their child for what he or she can do, rather than what they can’t.

Maybe SCHI is that type of school. But you’ll never know unless you’re ultra-Orthodox. The Press reports that  “phone and email messages to the school were not returned Tuesday. The school has steadfastly refused to allow reporters inside its walls or to provide enrollment information.” And,“the institution…has repeatedly ignored requests for comment or refused to allow the Press to access its facility. An administrative office staffer hung up when a reporter called Wednesday.”

Now, Sha’quan’s story is five and a half years ago.  His parents ended up moving to Jackson and getting him appropriately placed in a private special education school. Inzelbuch was fired by the Lakewood School Board in 2012 (not for this incident) but rehired, pending the State’s determination that his contract, which violates a plethora of DOE regulations, is legit. If approved, he’ll make — has already started making — $600,000 a year plus various extras. Inflation!  (See here and here for more on this, as well as here for a letter from N.J.’s Attorney General.)

But nothing’s changed in Lakewood.  Edward Barocas, legal director of the state chapter of the  ACLU weighed in on Singer’s remarks: “It’s not up to the parents to create a breakthrough, to be a trailblazer in what might otherwise be a segregated or uninvited setting.” Glenn Wilson, a Howell pastor and head of  Lakewood UNITE that advocates for  black and Latino Lakewood residents, said “he had not heard of any outreach efforts, or of any parents who had stopped their children from attending SCHI.” “Maybe,” he said sardonically,  “they should make the effort more visible.”

Not likely. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Lakewood School Board seems intent on opacity. It’s not for nothing that since 2012 the Board has gone through five Business Administrators. They appear to leave if they have integrity. For example, Thomas A. D’Ambola — he served the longest, two and a half years — was fired, he says, because the Board “retaliated against him for objecting to the use of public funds for non-mandatory courtesy busing at a time when the district was facing a deficit of millions of dollars.”

In his complaint, D’Ambola said he was ultimately let go for refusing to “play politics” and go along with the school board’s and administration’s plans to preserve courtesy busing at all costs, in deference to the wishes of the township’s Orthodox Jewish community.

D’Ambola’s lawyer, Patrick Whelan, also represented the previous BA, Arlene Biesiada, as well as her former assistant, Lisa Miller in a wrongful termination case.

In their complaint, filed in state Superior Court in 2014, Biesiada, of Millstone, and Miller, of Plumsted, said they were fired in retaliation for voicing objections to practices they believed were “against the law, discriminatory, contrary to public policy and unethical.” In one instance, the complaint alleges, Miller objected to low-income minority parents being improperly assessed a fee for a tutoring program that was supposed to be paid for with federal Title I funds. The Board settled for $174,000. Then Thaddeus Thomas, the BA who served after D’Ambola, stepped down after one year.

Now the Board has hired a search firm, Ray and Associates, to do a national search for a new BA who will “promote stability and fiscal stability.” The district website notes, “currently, Kevin Campbell has served as Interim Business Administrator since earlier this year after then Business Administrator Regina Robinson took a job closer to her home in Jersey City and Robert Finger has served as Interim Assistant Business  Administrator since October 2017.”

I’ve never heard of a School Board hiring a search firm to do a national search for a Business Administrator. Some boards don’t even do national searches for superintendents. But in Lakewood, there’s nothing that money can’t buy.

Unless you’re Sha’quan Peace-Doldren and his parents.


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