Not-So-Special Education

A former TUSD psychologist claims she is a victim of retaliation after blowing the whistle on abuse, neglect

As Rose Hamway unfolded a worn copy of a Tucson Weekly she's hung on to for almost two years, she pointed to sentences she highlighted that once gave her hope that real change was possible in the Tucson Unified School District.

The article was an interview with TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone ("A Pedicone Education," Dec. 9, 2010). The interview was early in Pedicone's tenure, just as supporters of Mexican-American studies were starting to question whether the superintendent would fight for the program, and before an appeals court returned a 30-year desegregation case to the district.

The school psychologist claims the district retaliated against her after she claimed that special-education students at Rincon and Sahuaro high schools were denied services and misdiagnosed—and that one student had been abused by an aide. After speaking out, the TUSD board chose not to renew her contract.

Hamway said she hoped Pedicone would come in, see her case and realize that changes in special education needed to happen. But that didn't happen—and Hamway decided to file a complaint.

Hamway's case was on the agenda—as a closed-door, executive-session matter—for the Tuesday, Aug. 14, school board meeting, and KGUN Channel 9 recently reported that a settlement was discussed. However, according to Hamway, no settlement has yet to be signed by TUSD or released, but she expects more to happen when the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) releases investigation results, perhaps in early September.

In April, I discovered a retaliation complaint filed in federal court by Hamway's attorney against TUSD. The attorney, Jenne Forbes, declined to discuss the complaint at the time, saying that the OCR was in the middle of negotiating a retaliation settlement with TUSD.

Hamway said she was hired by TUSD in 2009 after working the previous 10 years in special education for the Douglas Unified School District, as part of a team that turned around the district's special-education department.

Although she accepted the position at TUSD—starting Aug. 10, 2009, at Rincon High School—Hamway said she hesitated, because the district's special-education program did not have a great reputation. However, that reputation was earned before Elizabeth Celania-Fagen was hired as superintendent in 2008.

"She sounded wonderful. It seemed like real change was going to happen. It seemed like a good time to work for TUSD," Hamway said.

Celania-Fagen's time with TUSD was short-lived: In 2010, she left to head a school district in Colorado.

At Rincon, Hamway said, she found that students were denied proper placement and accommodations, and were misdiagnosed. She said she saw staff members entering false information on students' individualized education plans, known as IEPs. Other issues included parents being denied copies of their children's IEPs—and when parents who didn't speak English attended meetings about a child's IEP, no translator was provided, leaving it to children to translate.

On Aug. 24, 2009, Hamway requested a transfer, and she was sent to Sahuaro High School.

There, she said, she saw an aide grab a student roughly by the arm. She said Sahuaro also had placement and misdiagnosis issues. She claimed behavior plans were never implemented or were not done properly, leading to students' problems getting worse.

Hamway recalls one staff member telling her about a student—later diagnosed with schizophrenia—who was sleeping in a school stairwell. The staffer allegedly said to Hamway, "Let's go. I know I can get him to go off," meaning get the student to react angrily.

Hamway said she reported the issues to TUSD officials, including former government- programs and community-outreach director Lupita Garcia, who recently left the district, and special-education director Lorraine St. Germain, whom Garcia supervised. St. Germain retired from TUSD last year.

Hamway said she had a meeting with Garcia, and that Garcia told her to return as "her eyes and ears" regarding special education. On Oct. 25, 2009, St. Germain and another administrator reportedly came to Hamway's office to tell her they were transferring her to Catalina Magnet High School, an assignment she refused unless the issues were resolved.

On Oct. 29, Garcia presented her with a new job description that prevented her from working with students.

"I told Dr. Garcia ... that I believe this is retaliation and that I am a whistle-blower, and entitled to protections. She said no, that I wasn't a whistle-blower," Hamway said.

On Dec. 10, 2009, while meeting with a parent and student in her office, Hamway said, a Sahuaro security guard disrupted the meeting, saying that he wanted to talk to the mother about keeping their daughters away from each other. Hamway said she told him it was inappropriate and to leave her office; he then stood in the doorway while she tried to close the door. In reaction, the guard opened the door quickly, and Hamway fell back against her desk. She called the police—and also called her husband, to escort her out of the building.

On Dec. 11, 2009, Hamway said, she found a letter from the school—stuck in a door at her home—informing her she was on administrative leave, "for my protection," during the district's investigation into what occurred with the security guard.

Shortly after being placed on administrative leave, Hamway requested medical leave due to physical and emotional stress. It was approved, but in 2010, when the board voted to not renew her contract, they also voted to not renew her medical leave.

"After my contract wasn't renewed, I felt so bad about myself. I had never been fired before, but I realized after going through all of this, I wasn't ever mean or rude. I never showed them what they showed me," Hamway said.

"The system is broken, and I guess that's my focus now. Did those parents finally receive services? That's what this is about—the students were not treated with respect, and were not provided what they legally needed."

TUSD communications director Cara Rene said that discussions held in executive session are not public and therefore cannot be shared. "The district has not made an official statement on the Hamway situation. The OCR case is still pending. The district and OCR are negotiating a resolution agreement to settle the case."

Mari Herreras is the mother of a TUSD student who has received some special-education services.