Franklin Learning Center under investigation

March 28, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- A disability advocacy group performed a surprise inspection at the Franklin Learning Center, then followed up with a letter asking parents to turn over their students' records.

Many parents found the December 2008 letter misleading and were not entirely aware of what they were signing, PTA officer Tonya Fox said.

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN) reviewed about 40 students' records, according to statements from Franklin Learning Center board members and a DRN spokeswoman.

The Franklin Learning Center serves students with special needs. It is jointly owned by the Chambersburg Area, Greencastle-Antrim, Fannett-Metal, Tuscarora and Waynesboro Area school districts.


"We received numerous complaints" about the Franklin Learning Center, said Ilene Shane, chief executive officer of the DRN.

Shane said she could not quantify "numerous" because she was not directly involved with the case.

The DRN, which has been in operation for more than 30 years, operates under federal mandates that call for protection and advocacy for people with disabilities. It investigates schools, nursing homes, mental hospitals and other similar facilities with federal funds and, on a lesser scale, state funds and private foundation money.

"We have authority to go into these facilities and look at records," Shane said.

Kerri Bloom is the director of special education for Pennsylvania's Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, meaning she has a supervisory role for the Franklin Learning Center. The DRN was granted access during its Nov. 24, 2008, visit because representatives provided satisfactory identification and it was known the organization must be granted "reasonable access to private and public facilities," she said.

Both the DRN and Franklin Learning Center are awaiting a second visit from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This one will be more focused on the DRN's complaint about individualized education programs, which commonly are called IEPs.

"We're actually looking forward to a visit from the Pennsylvania Department of Education," Bloom said.

A meeting was held March 19 to make parents aware of what the process means. Fox praised teachers and aides for volunteering to baby-sit students that night to allow about 60 parents to attend.

"What we want parents to know is they have a voice in where their child goes to school," Bloom said.

Many are concerned actions connected to the DRN complaints will lead to their children being pushed into traditional classrooms in other schools, she said.

Parents "are afraid they won't be offered a continuum of services. There are places across Pennsylvania where buildings like the Franklin Learning Center have closed over time" when enrollment decreased, Bloom said.

That's not "an imminent threat" in this case, she said.

Shane said the school's closure isn't a consideration right now.

"If we thought a place needed to be closed, we'd say that," she said.

Bloom and Shane confirmed one of the major findings involved the use of Rifton chairs, which hold a disabled person's body upright.

"We were told they were being used for behavior purposes," Shane said.

"They're really for posture," Bloom said, explaining some IEPs needed to have wording changed to stipulate that.

Fox spoke passionately in support of the Franklin Learning Center staff and programs, saying it allows her to have a better relationship with her 12-year-old daughter. She said other parents share her views.

Parents say "when (students) come home, I'm not a teacher. I'm mom or I'm dad," Fox said.

The people best equipped to determine these children's educational needs are the parents, Fox said.

"Mainstream public education is not for my child," she said.

Investigation timeline

Nov. 24, 2008 -- The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania makes an unannounced visit to the Franklin Learning Center in Chambersburg, Pa.

Dec. 16, 2008 -- The Pennsylvania Department of Education visits the Franklin Learning Center and recommends limited training and paperwork changes.

Late December 2008 -- Parents receive letters asking that DRN be permitted to review their students' records.

Feb. 5, 2009 -- DRN arrives at the Franklin Learning Center to review about 40 records.

March 9, 2009 -- DRN asks the Pennsylvania Department of Education to investigate several of its claims, including that the center misused posture devices.

March 19, 2009 -- Franklin Learning Center officials host a meeting to inform parents of the investigation process and its implications.

Learning center facts

oFranklin Learning Center

2397 Loop Road

Chambersburg, PA 17202

oServes students with physical, developmental and behavioral needs in a public education system

oStudents: 200 from ages 3 to 21

oEmployees: 100-plus teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists, etc.

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