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Minneapolis' Choice for Superintendent Defends Actions in Special Ed. Case

Sergio Paez, who was picked earlier this month to head the Minneapolis public schools, is defending himself against allegations that he did not properly handle the alleged mistreatment of special education students at a Holyoke, Mass., school while he served as that district's superintendent. 

In a statement emailed to Education Week on Monday, Paez said that he took the complaints about the alleged mistreatment of students at the Peck Full Service Community School seriously, followed protocol, and cooperated with state agencies to conduct thorough investigations.  Corrective actions, included training staff in the appropriate use of restraint when dealing with students with severe social-emotional and behavioral disabilities, were taken, he said.

Paez's statement came in response to a report published last week by the Boston-based Disability Law Center that alleged that some special education students at the Peck Full Service Community School had been mistreated, including that they had been slammed against walls and forcibly restrained. 

Paez said statements that he did not take the allegations seriously or take action were false. And he also disputed that he dismissed parents' concerns about the treatment of students at Peck.

"The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was fully involved throughout the review of claims made by the Disability Law Center, and at no point—until recent media coverage—did DESE officials object to the way the matter was handled or recommend additional interventions," Paez wrote.

Paez was chosen on Dec. 7 as the next superintendent in Minneapolis—two days before the Disability Law Center released its report with the allegations of mistreatment.

A Massachusetts district attorney is said to be looking into the allegations.

Following the advocacy group's report, the Minneapolis school board put contract negotiations with Paez on hold to follow up on the allegations. Representatives from the school board visited Holyoke last week, and the board will revisit the issue on Jan. 12.

The Holyoke Teachers Association, which said that a union lawyer attended all interviews with the Disability Law Center and the teachers at the school, has said that the report does not paint "an entirely accurate or fair picture" of the school.

"As the professionals who directly address the learning and caretaking needs of students in a high-needs educational setting, our members at the Peck School have long raised concerns about systemic problems," a statement from the teachers' association read in part. "Issues include the need for more resources, higher staffing levels, and appropriate student placements."

In April, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to take over Holyoke schools because of lagging academic performance that predated Paez's tenure. The district made some strides during Paez's tenure, prompting many community members to ask the state to hold off on the takeover to give Paez more time to turn the district around.

Here is Paez's statement in full:

"During my tenure as Superintendent of the Holyoke Public Schools, I acted with the utmost professionalism and urgency on all claims and allegations, particularly those related to the health and safety of our students.

In the case of the Peck School, immediately upon receiving complaints, my team and I followed standard procedures and protocols, including cooperating fully with State agencies, conducting thorough investigations, and instituting corrective actions. This included extensive training for all staff in the appropriate use of restraint when working with students with severe social-emotional and behavioral disabilities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was fully involved throughout the review of claims made by the Disability Law Center, and at no point&dmash;until recent media coverage—did DESE officials object to the way the matter was handled or recommend additional interventions.

I strongly object to false statements in the press that we did not take these reports seriously or failed to take action. Some members of the media are doing a great disservice to the public and to me personally by accepting and reporting all claims as fact without verification. I take particular issue with reports that I was dismissive of any parent's concerns, because nothing could be farther from the truth. I have always approached parent concerns with the highest respect and attention, particularly when they have questions about the well-being of their child.

Throughout my career, I have worked passionately on behalf of all students, but always with particular attention to the students in greatest need of advocacy and support. The students at the Peck School are, in many ways, our most fragile students, constantly struggling to learn in the face of severe social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. As Superintendent, I took very seriously my responsibility to protect and serve these children, and under no circumstance would I tolerate their abuse, neglect, or mistreatment in any way."

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