BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK Education Reporter | Chicago Sun-Times | June 3, 2014
In response to a video series about special education students filmed inside a Chicago Public School, a group of child advocates have asked the Illinois State Board of Education to investigate possible violations of the children’s privacy.
But the Local School Council chair who invited the filmmakers to Montefiore Special Elementary School, 1310 S. Ashland Ave., without the district’s consent said he wanted to show the need for more therapeutic services in the district and the benefits Montefiore can provide.
A long list of disability-rights advocates — including attorneys and members of Access Living, Equip for Equality and the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois — asked the state board whether CPS or the school violated the rights of Montefiore students under the state’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They allege episodes captured in the eight-part series by VICE Media, called “Last Chance High” and posted to YouTube starting in March, reveal problems with how some staff treat Montefiore’s 7th through 9th graders.
“Any reasonable review of the video episodes will reveal to ISBE that Montefiore staff are violating student confidentiality, that many staff members are not prepared to do their jobs, and that the Chicago Public Schools has either failed to monitor and identify the problems at Montefiore, and/or it has failed to effectively correct the problems at Montefiore,” they wrote in an April 29 letter to ISBE. “At the very least, it is very clear that CPS has failed its obligation to ensure that the Montefiore staff are appropriately and adequately prepared and that the staff need extensive training in the following areas.”
Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst for Access Living, which advocates for the rights of disabled people, said the producers interviewed “psychologically disturbed students” who revealed potentially criminal things they’d done. One girl said she’d broken a teacher’s wrist. A boy admitted being high at school. The videos have been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube.
“CPS had an obligation — they needed to know what was going on,” at the school, Estvan said.
“For them to find out only after this video turns up on YouTube shows there isn’t a lot of close monitoring of this school,” Estvan added. “Parents and the school don’t have the right to breach the confidentiality provisions of federal law without the permission of the district.”
School principal Anthony Chalmers did not return a call seeking comment.
ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said in an email that the board will review the complaint and make a determination within 60 days.
A CPS spokesman said the filmmakers did not have the district’s permission to film. In April, CPS’ legal department sent a letter to YouTube demanding that the two videos and trailers be removed because the film was unauthorized and exploits minors; CPS’ communications department wrote to the filmmakers and producers asking them to take their videos down, according to the district.
“Prior to the release of this video, CPS had been reviewing the school’s classroom and behavior management policies and has since provided teachers and security staff with additional training and support to be better equipped to handle challenging situations,” schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett wrote in an email. “There is more work to be done to ensure all the students at Montefiore are getting an education tailored to their specific needs and potential, and we will continue evaluating progress and working with staff to provide these children with the quality education they deserve. We share some of the concerns expressed in Access Living’s letter to ISBE and also believe this unauthorized video at Montefiore exploited students who are minors.”
A VICE media spokesman said the producers were invited into the school by Robin Hood, received the necessary permission from the students’ parents and have received no complaints from those parents since the show began airing.
Hood said his motive was to “show after they closed all the therapeutic schools that there was one therapeutic school left in the city and all kids would be able to go in the hopes of filling the school up because the school was half empty.”
Hood said parents of the children portrayed have watched the show and don’t have any complaints.
“I can’t see where anybody did anything wrong,” Hood said. “I can’t see that. I’m a truth person, it is what it is. And these kids need their services.”