A father stood before the Westhampton Beach Board of Education Monday night and called each member cowardly, accused them of promoting “segregation,” and said the school district has cultivated a “shameful legacy” by not educating certain special needs students in-house.
This display—and the heated exchange that followed—came after the same man, Christian Killoran of Remsenburg, and his wife, Terrie, organized a protest outside the Westhampton Beach Middle School earlier that afternoon on behalf of their 12-year-old son, Aiden, who suffers from Down syndrome, a genetic disorder.
The aim of these acts was to convince the School Board to create special education programs within its middle and high schools, and not just for their son.
Backed by roughly 40 supporters from throughout Long Island carrying handmade signs, Mr. Killoran addressed board members for roughly nine minutes on Monday, asking that they allow his son Aiden, currently a special needs sixth-grader in the Remsenburg-Speonk Elementary School, to attend the Westhampton Beach Middle School next year.
“Either you’re about integration or you’re about segregation—it’s really that simple,” said Mr. Killoran, an attorney. “I want to know, and the people here want to know, and it’s a simple answer. All you have to do is just say it: Will you educate Aiden Killoran next year?”
Westhampton Beach Schools Superintendent Mike Radday said the board could not answer the question without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a response that caused a stir among those in attendance.
Mr. Radday said the accusations that he and the board lacked courage and compassion were unfounded and untrue.
“We have empathy,” he said. “We’re in this field because we love kids and we want the best for them. Anyone who’s going to stand up and tell me that’s not why I’m doing this, I’m going to tell you you’re wrong.”
Aiden is classified as an alternately assessed student, meaning that, because of his disorder, he would need to be educated in a special classroom—one which Westhampton Beach does not currently offer at its middle or high schools.
Based on a recommendation from the Remsenburg-Speonk Committee on Special Education, or CSE, Aiden will have to attend classes in either the Eastport South Manor, Center Moriches or Southampton school districts, or the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, also known as BOCES, for his post-elementary education once he graduates from Remsenburg-Speonk in June.
Andrew Gilbride of Westhampton asked the members of the board, who sat in silence during the public comment portion of the meeting, to comment on the issue.
“You can certainly speak in the abstract and not about any specific student, but give us your opinion on the situation and where this could be addressed,” he said. “You’re our representatives, please. I’d like to hear it.”
Mr. Radday said the board had been advised by its legal counsel not to discuss the issue publicly, which drew cries from the audience that the board was being gagged.
Board member Claire Bean, however, opted to address the crowd. Ms. Bean said that as the mother of a special needs child in the district, she could empathize with the parents in attendance, but she asked for their patience while the board made “slow and thoughtful and significant changes” regarding the district’s policies.
“I feel your hearts—there’s no ear on this board that doesn’t feel your hearts,” Ms. Bean said. “I feel your passion, I feel your heartache, and I think if you trust the process, which is very, very difficult, but I ask you for patience and the same empathy you’re asking from all of us.”
On Monday afternoon, roughly 25 picketers from Babylon, Sayville, Patchogue, South Jamesport and other locations throughout the island held a demonstration outside Westhampton Beach Middle School alongside the Killorans, advocating that the school and district develop more special education programs.
Mr. Killoran said he and his wife have attempted to reach out to the School Board several times during the past two and a half years but, thus far, have gotten nothing in return.
Protesters gathered at the northwest corner of Mill Road and Oneck Lane shortly after 2 p.m. and waved signs urging drivers to honk their horns if they wanted Aiden to attend Westhampton Beach. Picketers also chanted “Integrate, not segregate!” and circulated petitions for people to sign and submit to the Westhampton Beach Board of Education.
Eileen Tyznar, owner of Teaching Education Advocacy for Children with Higher needs, or TEACH, Consulting Services Inc., helped orchestrate the protest, spreading the word to families facing similar issues throughout Long Island.
Ms. Tyznar, a professional advocate hired by the Killorans and 15 other families in and around Westhampton Beach, said it is common for smaller districts to send their special needs children elsewhere for education, but she believes that in doing so the districts are shirking their responsibility to their communities.
During that night’s meeting, Ms. Tyznar said it’s important for special needs children to interact with other students in order to learn important communications skills. She also said Westhampton Beach knew well in advance of this year that the Killorans wanted to send Aiden to their middle school, so they had time to put a solution in place. “They knew that he was coming,” she said. “They should have done something by now.”
Most Remsenburg-Speonk students go on to attend the Westhampton Beach middle and high schools. Ms. Killoran argued that forcing Aiden to go to a different school—forcing him to leave behind friends he has made over the past seven years, as well as his two siblings, Christian Riley and Shannon—would create an undue burden for him.
“Here, all of his friends love him—he just happens to have Down syndrome. They know him and love him,” Ms. Killoran said. “You ship him off to Eastport South Manor, no one is going to know him. The typical kids aren’t even going to talk to him.”
Other parents with special needs children, including Kerry Horton of Remsenburg and Ana Schaffauer of Quogue, also urged the board to create a pathway for Aiden to attend the Westhampton Beach Middle School with the hope that it would set a precedent that their children could follow. Mr. Killoran argued that once a program is established, it will become more financially feasible over time.
But Mr. Radday said the district has never had enough demand to create a specialized class at Westhampton Beach. Therefore, he argued, it has always been within the students’ best interest that they be educated elsewhere after leaving the elementary school, which does currently provide support for alternately assessed children.
“There are times, like when you have one student over a three-year grade span, when we can’t offer a program that can do all the things a neighboring district or a BOCES can do, because they have expertise—they have similar kids with similar needs and opportunities to integrate them,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s the bottom-line answer, the number of students, but there are times when it makes sense for kids to go into a specialized program.”