Accomack School Board Pressed on Special Education and Policy Implementation

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By Stefanie Jackson – A parent of a former Chincoteague student informed the Accomack school board Tuesday night about the unfairness of the manner in which its policies are enforced regarding out-of-zone students.

“I do believe that schools should not be permitted to pick and choose which out-of-zone students stay or go,” said Jessica Lewis, of Chincoteague.

Lewis explained that her husband had finished building a home in New Church prior to their marriage that took place two weeks ago.

The couple has been staying in the new home, but Lewis maintains her Chincoteague residence and will continue to do so until her lease expires in February.

Yet the process was begun to withdraw her son from Chincoteague Combined School “as soon as they knew we got married,” in spite of conversations with school administration that she and her son are still residents of Chincoteague.

Her son has autism and anxiety and does not cope well with abrupt change, Lewis said.

She and her husband scrambled to find three proofs of his residency at the New Church home to enroll her son at Arcadia Middle School.

Lewis believed it was unfair that “they were very quick to push my son out of Chincoteague Combined School when he was out-of-zone,” even though other out-of-zone families send their children to Chincoteague schools.

Those families’ addresses are in the areas of Atlantic and Wallops Island. One family uses the address of the NASA Vistors Center as their address on school forms, she said.

She called for an investigation and the withdrawal of all students who do not belong in Chincoteague schools according to school zoning rules.

Lewis said Chincoteague Combined School Principal Harold Holmes had advised her to contact Director of Secondary Education Karen Taylor about the concerns.

Lewis left messages for Taylor and Della Jordan, of student support services, but Lewis received no response, she said.

School board Chairman Paul Bull told Lewis that someone from the school district will contact her.

Connie Burford, of Bloxom, reminded the school board of deficiencies in its special education program.

Accomack schools lack a universal pre-K program, and sometimes there is a delay identifying students who need special education because they start school later.

Burford also called for aides in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. She suggested if the school division cannot afford to hire aides, substitutes might be used to provide assistance to teachers.

“Before we know it, there is going to be a child that hurts another child in the classroom, and you all will be responsible for that happening.”

Marie Gunter, of Bloxom, spoke about the need to establish a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Accomack schools and the Accomack sheriff’s office.

According to a new Virginia law, schools that use school resource officers must have an MOU with the local sheriff’s department.

The MOU will protect students “from illegally being detained and questioned without parent or guardian representation.”

Gunter said her nephew, who is also a special needs student, had his rights violated, “which continues to add to his trauma.”

She spoke on behalf of her nephew’s parents, who feared there may be repercussions for speaking out.

“We’re trying to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and cannot allow these injustices to continue without accountability,” she said.

Gunter is also a member of nonprofit Virginia Organizing, which has offered on multiple occasions to help the school board “construct an MOU that will best protect and serve all parties involved.

“It is our hope that Accomack County will follow the lead of other districts … and get community input for developing a comprehensive MOU.”

“Please don’t wait until something happens to another student in violation of this policy that the state has mandated to be followed.”