HAZEN, Arkansas -
HAZEN, AR - Following complaints from parents, the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas began investigating the Hazen School District facilities meant to serve students with disabilities in K-8. The group said they found a number of concerning issues, from accessibility to general safety dangers, going so far as to say the children were being treated as second-class citizens.
We're told education is a doorway to opportunities, but Lynn Shuck is not sure her 10-year-old daughter has the same access as other kids her age.
"She has no rights to be able to be out there with other students," Shuck said. "And there are safety issues all around, inside and out of that building."
Her daughter is wheelchair dependent due to cerebral palsy, and according to Shuck her daughter has been taught behind closed doors in a house across the street from the elementary campus.
"I"m very frustrated, and so are a lot of other parents," she said. "She has never been able to go to recess because they don't have equipment she can use. There are broken tiles in the changing area of the bathroom she could get cut on. There is therapy that is required in her education plan, but there are no tools to make that possible."
According to Justin Nickels, with the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas, the group isn't trying to single out the Hazen School District but found that parents had legitimate complaints.
"One of the things we're concerned about is the isolation of these kids," he said. "Anytime that happens, it means they're not getting the education or services they need."
According to Nickels, it was discouraging to see the state of the home that had become these children's classroom, given the investment in other facilities on campus.
"There is construction going on on campus, including a new gymnasium," he said. "There are so many services for able-bodied children. These children with disabilities shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens."
The Arkansas Department of Education seemed to agree with many of the group's points, noting in a letter on August 27 to District Superintendent Nanette Belford that the facility was not inclusive, may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was less than sanitary.
Belford declined an on-camera interview, but she said the home had been chosen as the location to teach students with disabilities because it had a kitchen where they could learn life skills.
The ADE letter addressed that reasoning but noted that the counters, stove top and other spaces did not appear to be accessible to the students being served.
Among the issues the Disability Rights Center found: exposed sewage pipes in an unfenced backyard, broken ceramic tiles in the changing area for those who relied on toiletry assistance, boards with rusty nails sticking out, an isolation room with accessible electric sockets, among others.
"It's just not an environment we feel these children need to be in," he said. "The house is old and overall it wasn't very sanitary."
Shuck pointed to the ramp outside the home which is the one access point for her daughter's wheelchair.
"There are no rails. Even though she wouldn't be able to grab it, what about the person helping her. If something were to happen they would have to just grab the wall or hit the ground."
Belford said she was unaware of any issues with the building until last month when she was alerted to the complaint by ADE, but Shuck disagrees with her recollection of events.
"No, I have gone to Ms. Belford about quite a few things for the past year regarding my daughter's education and that building," Shuck said.
The district has begun the process of moving the students to another room in an annex to the elementary school. Students facing in school suspension will now take the house space that had been reserved for children with disabilities. While the new classroom is closer to other, able-bodied students, it raises concerns as well.
"The doors don't have door knobs, they're deadbolts you turn with a key," Nickels said. "So, if those doors are closed and, God forbid, the teacher would have a heart attack, there's going to be concerns over how those students would get out."
According to Nickels, the Disability Rights Center will continue to monitor the progress at Hazen Schools. Shuck aid while her daughter faces obstacles, she she should have the same opportunities.
"That all the other children have, yes, I do. I really do believe she should have that," she said. "I also would like to see a dedicated facility for these children, specifically built for children with disabilities."
Belford said that it was unlikely a new facility would be built specifically for these students, though she did say the district was slated to meet with ADE representatives tomorrow to develop a plan of action.