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George C. Marshall High School in Idylwood (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A special education teacher at Marshall High School in Idylwood has been arrested for allegedly assaulting a student more than once, Fairfax County police announced Friday night (Dec. 2).

Two different employees reported seeing Amy Bonzano, a 50-year-old Falls Church resident, assaulting a student with disabilities, according to the Fairfax County Police Department.

The first report came on Sept. 28 from an employee who “immediately” alerted school administrators, police said. The school’s subsequent investigation uncovered an earlier incident shared by a teacher who “had observed Bonzano physically assault the student approximately six months earlier,” according to the FCPD’s news release.

“That incident was not reported at the time it occurred,” the police department said. “Our detectives were notified on Oct. 13 and assumed the investigation.”

After conducting “numerous” interviews, detectives obtained and served two summons on Friday with warrants for simple assault, a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia that carries a potential jail sentence of six months.

Listed as an intellectual disabilities teacher on the website for Marshall, which enrolls 272 students who receive special education services, as of the 2021-2022 school year, Bonzano has been placed on administrative leave, as has the teacher who didn’t initially report the assault they witnessed, principal Jeffrey Litz said in a message to the school community.

Dear Marshall HS Families,

I am deeply saddened tonight to inform you that Fairfax County police have announced the arrest of a special education teacher at Marshall High School who has been charged with assaulting a student. When the alleged incident occurred on September 28th, we contacted the family and the proper authorities, and placed the staff member on administrative leave. As the police reference, the investigation resulted in a staff member sharing that they had witnessed a similar incident six months earlier but did not report it. I want you to know that the person who did not report the previous incident was immediately placed on leave.

As principal, my primary responsibility is the safety and security of everyone who enters the doors of Marshall High School. This is something I take very seriously. As educators, we are entrusted with the wellbeing of the children in our care every day. It deeply affects us when someone appears to have broken that trust. Please contact Fairfax County Police Major Crimes Bureau if you have any information you would like to share at 703-246-7800, option 4.

I am here to answer your questions or concerns, and to support students in any way they need.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey D. Litz

The FCPD says anyone with information related to this case or other possible incidents can contact its detectives at 703-246-7800, option “4.” The department also accepts anonymous tips through Crime Solvers by phone (1-866-411-TIPS) and online.

Bonzano is the second FCPS employee to get arrested for assaulting a student with disabilities this year. In September, an instructional assistant at Dogwood Elementary School in Reston was arrested when two teachers witnessed an alleged assault.

The news of Bonzano’s arrest came the same week that FCPS announced an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education requiring it to compensate special education students for services it failed to provide during the shift to remote learning earlier in the pandemic.

FCPS is in the midst of reviewing its special education program after a recent report indicated that students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and generally struggle more academically compared to their peers.

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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools failed to give needed educational services to “thousands” of students with disabilities when it pivoted to virtual learning due to COVID-19 in 2020, federal officials say.

FCPS must compensate all affected students for the lost services as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, which was investigating reports that the school system had violated students’ right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” Education Department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a news release announcing the agreement yesterday.

FCPS said in a statement that it will convene meetings with all current and former students who attended during the “pandemic period” from April 14, 2020 to June 16, 2022 to discuss their Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 plans.

IEPs are written plans that establish services and academic goals for students in special education. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that get federal funding and requires public school districts to provide a FAPE.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened investigations into FCPS and districts in Indiana, Seattle and Los Angeles in January 2021, citing local news reports where parents said schools delayed or neglected to deliver the specialized services their kids need.

While acknowledging the pandemic’s “unique challenges,” which prompted widespread school closures in an effort to limit Covid’s spread, OCR says that doesn’t relieve schools of their responsibility to educate students in accordance with their specific needs.

After going fully virtual in spring 2020, FCPS started reintroducing in-person classes that October, but it didn’t bring back all students, five days a week, until August 2021.

Though FCPS attempted to address learning losses with expanded summer programs, OCR reports that the school system “inappropriately reduced and limited services” to students with disabilities, failed to “accurately or sufficiently” track the services it was providing, and “refused even to entertain compensatory education for services it did not or could not provide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The evidence strongly suggests that appropriate remedial services still remain unavailable, as a practical matter, to the many thousands of students with disabilities in the Division who may need them,” OCR said in a letter to Superintendent Michelle Reid.

As of this past February, FCPS had only provided recovery services to 1,070 students with IEPs and eight students with Section 504 plans, OCR said. 15.5% of the over 180,000 students who attend FCPS this school year have disabilities, according to state data.

Under the agreement, FCPS must get OCR’s approval for plans to compensate students, appoint an administrator to implement those plans, notify parents and guardians, and develop an electronic system by Jan. 17 to track which students need additional services and what accommodations are provided.

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, FCPS remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss,” the school system said. “FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.” Read More

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A Fairfax County police car with lights flashing (file photo)

An assistant at Reston’s Dogwood Elementary School has been arrested in connection with assaulting a special needs student earlier this month, according to police.

Fairfax County police charged Mark MacDicken, 60, of Centreville, with the assault of the juvenile student on Sept. 16. McDicken has worked at the school for roughly 10 years, police said.

Two teachers reportedly witnessed McDicken assaulting the student when they walked into their classroom.

He was charged with assault.

McDicken has been put on administrative leave while the case is underway, Dogwood Elementary School Principal Kate Beckner said in a message to families.

“I understand this will come as a shock to our community,” she wrote. “The primary responsibility for anyone who works in education is the safety and wellbeing of children. When that trust appears to be broken, it affects us all.”

Beckner’s full letter to the community, shared with FFXnow by Fairfax County Public Schools, is below.

Dear Dogwood Families,

I am deeply saddened this morning to share the news of a situation at Dogwood ES involving an instructional assistant.

Fairfax County Police will be sharing with the community today that an instructional assistant has been arrested and charged with assaulting a student in our school. Two staff members who allegedly witnessed the incident immediately contacted administration and we took swift action to contact the authorities. The staff member is currently on administrative leave while this case is resolved.

I understand this will come as a shock to our community. The primary responsibility for anyone who works in education is the safety and wellbeing of children. When that trust appears to be broken, it affects us all.

These situations can be upsetting and prompt a variety of emotions. When engaging in conversations with your child, listen calmly and reassuringly, and share a message that you are someone your child can talk to, even in challenging situations. If you have counseling questions or concerns, please reach out to our counselors, Angel Evins and Jen Franconeri at 703-262-3100. Please also contact Fairfax County Police Major Crimes Bureau if you have any information you would like to share at 703-246-7800, option 4.

I am here to answer your questions or concerns, and to support students in any way they need.

Sincerely,

Kate Beckner

Principal

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Morning Notes

Relaxing in Penny Lane Park at the Mosaic District (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

County Police and Fire Training Exercise Today — “#FCFRD is conducting a joint training exercise with Fairfax County Police Department at Fairfax County Government Government Center on Wednesday, June 22, between 9 a.m. -3 p.m. There will be a large fire and police presence in the area during this time. #FCPD Helicopter Fairfax 1 will land/take off during the exercise.” [FCFRD/Facebook]

Rep. Beyer Wins Democratic Primary — Rep. Don Beyer’s bid for reelection remains alive after he won the Democratic nomination for the 8th Congressional District yesterday (Tuesday). Per the Office of Elections, Fairfax County’s turnout reached an estimated 2.5%, as of 3:30 p.m., not including early and absentee voters. [WTOP, Twitter]

Health Aide Under Investigation for Stealing Student Meds — Fairfax County police are investigating a health aide who allegedly took student medications and replaced them with allergy medicine while employed at Greenbriar East Elementary School. The Fairfax County Health Department worker has been placed on administrative leave and could be terminated. [FOX5]

New FCPS Cell Phone Policy Approved — “The policy taking effect in the 2022-2023 school year says students in kindergarten through eighth grade must silence cell phones and put them away for the entire school day. Students in grades nine to 12 must only silence and put away cell phones during classes.” [Patch]

Reduced Charges Possible for Former Freedom Hill ES Workers — “A former teacher and teacher’s aide in Fairfax County, Virginia, accused of abusing non-verbal disabled children entered plea agreements on [June 13] that would result in reduced charges and no jail time.” [NBC4]

Alexandria Man Charged in Springfield Shooting — A 24-year-old Alexandria man got into an argument with the acquaintance in the 2600 block of Redcoat Drive on Sunday (June 19) night around 11 p.m. inside an apartment before police say he shot the person in the upper body and fled. Fairfax County police told FFXnow the victim was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Officers located the suspect, who they identified of Antwan Pratt, and arrested him nearby, charging him with aggravated malicious wounding and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Kingstowne House Fire Started by Rags — Two people were displaced on Friday (June 17) by a house fire in the 7800 block of Kincardine Court that caused approximately $90,000 in damages. Investigators determined the blaze started in a first-floor laundry/utility room due to “the improper disposal of rags used for staining wood.” [FCFRD]

Retired Police Dog Dies — “We’re saddened to announce the passing of retired K9 Comak on Saturday. Comak served the Fairfax County community as a patrol dog from 2010 until he retired in 2019. Upon completion of his service, Comak was a beloved member of his handler’s family.” [FCPD/Facebook]

Shared-Use Path Proposed in Centreville — “The Virginia Department of Transportation will hold a virtual design public hearing Monday, June 27 on plans to build a shared-use path along Compton Road (Route 658) to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety, accessibility and connectivity to the Cub Run Trail system…The project also includes widening the Compton Road bridge over Cub Run to accommodate the new shared-use path.” [VDOT]

McLean HS Runner Wins State Title — “By finishing first in the girls 1,600-meter race in 4:54.92, McLean High School distance runner Thais Rolly was the lone local winner from schools in the Sun Gazette’s coverage area at the recent Virginia High School League’s Class 6 girls and boys outdoor state championship meets.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]

It’s Wednesday — Rain in the evening and overnight. High of 85 and low of 70. Sunrise at 5:45 am and sunset at 8:39 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Fairfax County Public Schools will end the use of seclusion at Key Center School in Franconia and Kilmer Center in Dunn Loring with the 2022-2023 school year (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County Public Schools will officially end the use of seclusion as a tool for managing student behavior when the next school year begins on Aug. 22.

The practice of confining a student to a room is already prohibited in most schools, but the Fairfax County School Board approved an update on March 10 that expands the ban to include the Key Center School, Kilmer Center, and private day and residential schools, starting with the 2022-2023 school year.

Key Center in Franconia serves students with intellectual disabilities, severe disabilities, and autism, while Kilmer Center, located in Dunn Loring, is for students aged 5 to 21 with severe disabilities and autism. Their enrollment for the current school year is 60 and 62 students, respectively.

Adopted without discussion as part of the board’s consent agenda, the updated policy follows through on the commitment that FCPS made in November to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of six students with disabilities and advocacy organizations.

As part of that settlement, FCPS also agreed to a blanket prohibition on all physical restraints “that create a high risk of injury, including prone, supine, and floor restraints and chokeholds.”

The school system’s existing policy, which took effect on Dec. 17, 2020, banned all mechanical and pharmacological, or medication-based, restraints. The revised version more explicitly states that this includes restraints that put students on the floor or in prone or supine positions.

It also prohibits the “use of restraint or seclusion in any manner that is life-threatening, restricts breathing, or restricts blood flow to the brain.”

FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult says the school system anticipates “the impact of these changes to be minimal,” since the use of seclusion and restraints was mostly phased out during the 2020-2021 school year.

“We do anticipate some adjustments for our current students receiving services through private day and residential schools, but we are in close communication with those sites regarding this policy,” Moult said.

According to Moult, 139 students are currently enrolled in public day programs and 233 in private day or residential schools that have contracts with FCPS, as of December of 2021.

The updated policy states that FCPS will not contract with private schools that permit restraint and seclusion once the 2022-2023 school year starts, but students currently placed at schools that use those practices can choose to stay there at a student, parent, or guardian’s request.

FCPS started overhauling its restraint and seclusion policy after the radio station WAMU reported in March 2019 that the school system was significantly underreporting how often the practices were being used on children with disabilities. Some incidents resulted in injuries, hospitalization and students leaving their schools.

The report prompted an investigation by FCPS and the lawsuit filed in October 2019 by families of students with disabilities, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and CommunicationFIRST.

Since then, FCPS says it has been regularly updating school staff on “proactive practices to reduce behavior concerns” using MANDT, Professional Crisis Management, and Ukeru — professional development programs that provide crisis management training focused on de-escalation and trauma-informed techniques.

With the updated policy, the school system also says staff will be trained to not seek assistance from a school resource officer in a situation requiring a student to be restrained unless no other certified personnel are available and a police officer’s involvement is necessary “to prevent imminent serious injury.”

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Entrance of Fairfax County Public Schools' administrative headquarters
Fairfax County Public Schools’ administrative headquarters in Merrifield (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools has found savings to provide a second year of expanded summer learning programming.

The $12.5 million needed for the enhanced summer school will come from reserve staffing funds that went unused due to FCPS’ decreased student enrollment, according to the district.

“We realize that…access to summer programming is important for all of our students,” Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said at a school board meeting on Thursday (March 10). “It is a game-changer.”

The funds will be officially approved at a future meeting as part of a third-quarter review of the fiscal year 2022 budget, which spans from July 1, 2021 to June 30 of this year.

Intended to offset learning losses attributed to the shift to virtual classes during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, FCPS expanded its summer school offerings last year to accommodate more than 35,000 students — 10 times the number served in a typical year.

However, staffing shortages for the Extended School Year program, which serves students with disabilities, forced FCPS to delay classes and left many families frustrated.

Corbett-Sanders suggested summer enrollment was adversely affected because of how FCPS handled the situation. She said FCPS expects there will be increased interest in this year’s offerings, which includes a return of the Extended School Year program for an anticipated 3,308 students in special education.

FCPS says special education teachers who participate in the ESY program will receive a flat rate of $68 per hour, with consulting and homebound teachers getting a compensation rate of $50 per hour.

The largest program will be Summer Olympians Aspire and Reach (SOAR), which is expected to have an estimated 13,400 students. The program teaches kindergarten through sixth-grade students math and literacy skills to prepare them for the upcoming school year.

Other planned programs include a credit recovery academy for high school students, an online campus with virtual classes, enrichment programs, Young Scholars, Bridge to Kindergarten for children who did not attend preschool, and a summer recovery academy for students with disabilities.

Overall, FCPS anticipates that more than 33,000 students will enroll in a summer learning program this year.

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The Fairfax County School Board discusses a first-year interim report of a two-year review of the district’s special education program (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is conducting the first public review of its special education services since 2013 after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional learning with remote classes that disproportionately affected students with disabilities.

Presented to the school board at a work session yesterday (Tuesday), findings from the first year of the review highlight families’ frustrations with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and suggest the school system disproportionately disciplines special education students, especially Black and Hispanic children.

Requested by the school board in December 2019 and officially launched on Nov. 10, 2020, the interim report states explicitly that the review “does not address special education programming during COVID-19.”

The contracted firm — the Arlington-headquartered nonprofit American Institutes for Research — said FCPS decided to focus on collecting data for normal school operations.

On the positive side, surveys of both staff and parents found that 87% of the over 18,500 parents who responded “agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school,” frequently noting the caring nature of instructional staff and expressing appreciation for employees.

The review showed that, from 2016-2021, FCPS had about nine or 10 students per special education teacher, a lower ratio than the state average of 15-to-1. The district has also taken steps to improve communication with school staff, including by appointing an assistant ombudsman for special education in 2019, the report said.

While researchers stressed that this is an initial update and the conclusions aren’t final, the report found several areas of concern:

  • Families voiced a lack of transparency and accountability about Individualized Education Program goals and progress
  • Suspension and expulsion rates were higher for certain races than others
  • Parents suggested that the IEP process for getting student input on post-high school transition plans “may be driven by compliance rather than student needs”
  • Novice teachers lack preparation to work with students with disabilities, an area that researchers are investigating further
  • Staff reported feeling overwhelmed by case management, paperwork, and meeting duties, affecting FCPS’ ability to effectively recruit and retain teachers
  • The amount and quality of communication between parents and staff varies by school
  • A sampling showed more than a third of IEPs had no written evidence of parent input

“‘It’s so sad.’ That’s what I wrote all over this document,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

An interim report for a special education review compared suspension rates for students with disabilities and other students (via American Institutes of Research/FCPS)

In addition to discussing how to address the issues raised by the report, school board member after school board member raised concerns about the review process, urging researchers to be specific in their recommendations by looking at subgroups and other factors. Officials suggested broad takeaways could dilute matters and not help families.

“My fear overall about this is that this is a one-sized-fits-all special ed audit,” Laura Jane Cohen, the board’s Springfield District representative, said.

Researchers responded that they used a random sampling to collect their preliminary findings. They also noted constraints with interviewing kids, while expressing a willingness to consider changes.

The firm said it will go more in-depth during the second year of a $375,000-plus contract issued in October 2020.

FCPS Auditor General Esther Ko reminded the board that it has a fixed contract and the firm will work at no cost for three more months after its second year. If the board wants more changes, though, it could amend the contract or open another bidding process to look at other topics.

The board requested that Ko to evaluate possible changes to the review with American Institutes for Research for its audit committee to go over later.

Currently set to be completed next summer, the review will make recommendations to FCPS for how to improve services for students with disabilities and their families.

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