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Open letter to Candace Brown, King George School Superintendent

Editor’s note: This letter was emailed to The Journal along with a long list of local and state officials.   

I am a federal employee at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren with over 14 years of National Service. I have Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Information Technology and am currently working on my PhD at George Mason University. I have served this nation as a Nuclear Reactor Operator on fast attack submarines and as an officer of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, United States Department of State. My wife she is fully fluent in Turkish, Arabic and English and also served in the diplomatic arena.  What I am going to state in this email is fact, not conjecture. My conclusions are based on quantitative evidence and backed by subject matter experts’ assessments.
At the end of last school year, I had to write an email to Dr. Patricia Wright, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Virginia Department of Education seeking help and guidance for my six-year old daughter who attends Potomac Elementary School in King George County. As a result of that email, I was put in touch with Mr. Hank Millward. Mr. Millward was extremely helpful in explaining our (my wife, myself and most importantly, my daughter’s) rights and how the system works. After reviewing my complaints, Mr. Millward stated that he had serious concern that there were procedural violations. He explained that we could pursue state complaints, mediation and due process hearings as forms of relief. Rather than escalating matters further (and with encouragement from Mr. Millward), I decided to try to work through Patrick Nealon to get my daughter’s education back on track. I always prefer to resolve conflict at the lowest level possible. Nealon and I met and discussed the issues that I had. The result of that meeting was not conclusive, but it was a step in the right direction. I felt encouraged that we could come to an agreement without further intervention from higher authority.



Over the summer, our daughter had to attend Huntington Learning Center in order to learn what King George County Schools had failed to teach her (she plain and simply was not being taught – she was being pulled from the classroom and not receiving the education that she was fully capable, intellectually, from participating in. It was easier to put her in another room, away from her peers). We had brought up repeatedly in the IEP meetings that we thought our daughter did not need to be taken out of the class; that all she needed was supplemental instruction after school to give her the assistance needed to make her measure up to her peers. She simply needs supplemental instruction.
At the meetings, this suggestion was simply dismissed saying that the County does not do that. When I met with Nealon, he stated the same thing. He said that as long as there is someone offering some kind of service during school hours, then nothing else could be done, that the State does not allow it.  I had my own theory as to what was missing from my daughter’s education and rather than continuing non-productive bantering with Nealon, engaging in debate that is not based on quantifiable fact, I decided to wait until school began this year to reengage the Special Education system that Nealon represents. My intent was to bring to the first IEP meeting quantitative evidence of what my daughter needs, and what she doesn’t, as evidenced by the progress she had made over the summer due to the teachings of Huntington Learning Center.
Throughout last year’s IEP meetings, I asked for quantitative measures of progress but all that has ever been given (with the exception of the psycho-educational evaluation) has been qualitative, anecdotal and feelings. My daughter’s teacher said things in the IEP meetings like “she is making no progress” and “she is the worst in the class” (you can imagine the bias that this teacher carried.) Whereas Huntington tested on day one, frequently retested and therefore is able to show quantitatively the progression made.
Our first IEP meeting was held this past Friday, Sept. 23. My wife and I had simple intentions going into that meeting. We wanted to rebuild the trust and relationship between us and the school and get our daughter’s education back on track. We prepared a short presentation that demonstrated the progress that our daughter had made and juxtaposed that to the IEP that she had at the end of last year. Spring boarding from that evidence, we would explain what our daughter needed and how we could make it happen. However, we were not allowed to give that evidence. What happened at the meeting was totally shocking to us and has made us realize that working with Nealon (and presumably King George County Schools) is not a viable option: when dealing with a tyrant, there are only two plausible paths: either you give into the tyrant and follow his lead, or you remove him from the equation.
When setting up the date for the meeting, I told Mr. Gilbert (Assistant Principal, Potomac Elementary) that I would be recording the meeting. (Due to the lack of integrity that we have experienced, we will, from now on, record all meetings.) Nealon lead the meeting and stated that his agenda was to go over the Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). Early on, I said that rather than just talking about the IEE, I had put together a presentation that would show exactly what was wrong with the situation and would succinctly lead to resolution. Nealon told me that we are not allowed to deviate from his agenda, that it was his meeting, that we would discuss only the IEE because that was all that was allowed by the procedure and that at some future event, I could say what I want (doesn’t make sense to me to bring up anything after a decision has been forced upon us and in execution).
Knowing my rights, I challenged this, but Nealon insisted it was his meeting and that he could run it as he sees fit. My wife and I tried to explain that this is exactly the problem: there is no trust between parents of King George County and the King George County School system. (Recently in the newspaper you were quoted saying that families are moving away from King George without reporting to the school and that explains the un-anticipated drop in school attendance. You are mistaken. People are, at an alarming rate, seeing that our County schools are not viable and are sending their kids to private schools in Fredericksburg or home schooling.)
Nealon refused to allow us to talk, so I said we are ending the meeting and leaving. Nealon said that we weren’t allowed to do that and that if we did leave, he would go ahead, continue the meeting and determine what would happen to our daughter. We argued back and forth on this, coming to a point that had caused us to go to the State last year.
At the end of the year, during an IEP, Katie Feltner told us that our daughter was aging out of her “delayed development” status and needed to meet with the County psychologist. We said in that meeting that we would agree on one condition: they tell us what day it would be on and that we meet with the psychologist prior to and introduce our daughter to him. Our reasoning was that we wanted to make sure that our daughter got a good night sleep the night before and a good breakfast to help ensure the best results. By introducing her to the psychologist, this would help alleviate any apprehension or fear that our daughter might otherwise have. (I really do not think this is too much to ask. Schools should be thrilled to have this level of participation and commitment from parents!)
Katie agreed and said nothing could be simpler. So we signed the authorization, but we made the mistake (which we will NEVER do again), we did not get it in writing and we had not started recording meetings at that time. That fact that the simplest of things MUST be written into a document and signed by parties is evidence of just how wrong things have gotten. I understand that specifics of training and goals needs to be written to ensure clear communication between parties is achieved, but things like this should not have to be written into a legally binding document in order to force them to happen. It is indicative of a lack of integrity. Then, out of the blue, we received the completed evaluation in the mail.
I said this is a violation of our rights. Nealon told me no, that as soon as he gets a signed paper, he can do anything that HE wants to, to that child. He said that he does not have to abide by anything that is agreed upon at an IEP, that the law says he can do, basically, as he sees fit. At that point, my wife and I got up to leave this rapidly deteriorating meeting. Prior to leaving though, we stated emphatically and in unambiguous terms that neither of our children are to receive speech services from Ms Byrd. Nealon tried to twist this and put words in our mouths, so I re-articulated my point: Both of our daughters REQUIRE speech services, but at this time, their IEPs are void and need to be re-established prior to them receiving services. (The meeting lasted a whole 15 minutes and we can provide the recording.)
The reason behind our rejection of Byrd’s service is that in the next to last IEP meeting last school year, we asked Byrd to provide some minimal communication (as the previous two speech therapists had done – they were awesome) as to what she was working on so that we could reinforce her efforts. Byrd point blank responded “I don’t work that way.” And no one has corrected that. Maybe, Dr. Brown, you should try the same tactic: when the State and the Federal government ask you why the County’s Special Education is in systematic non-compliance, why not a single elementary school in the County is in compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, what are you doing to correct the situation and what progress has been made on all findings – just tell them “I don’t work that way.” I’m confident they will give you the same response that we gave Byrd – you are not working with these kids!
Byrd, also in a prior meeting, had explained that she can’t wait for Mondays to ask our daughters what we did over the weekend (we tend to be very active and explore, taking the girls to places like Luray Caverns, Tyson’s Corner, Richmond, the museums and monuments in DC, etc). Byrd said she would spend the kids’ therapy time discussing our activities. Incorporating conversation like this can be an effective component of therapy if used properly, but it made us wonder exactly what our kids were getting from Byrd’s “therapy” sessions. We had noticed that both of our kids were regressing compared to what the previous speech therapists had achieved. Therefore, we began to question what Byrd’s therapy actually consisted of. We have to fight so hard to get the services in the first place, they had better be delivered by a competent professional!
Nealon abuses the power and authority that his position. He bullies people into kowtowing to him and signing whatever he puts in front of them. Consider what the average parent (all too frequently it is a single parent without the benefit of a spouse to “have your back”) of a child with disabilities has running against him/her. They do not have the strength, resources and education to withstand an onslaught from a “man” like Nealon. He uses his elevated and domain specific language as a means of cloaking truth, confusing parents and subverting the very purpose of special services.
The people who really suffer from his actions are the people who we have the greatest responsibility to: children. And what is really shameful is that it is even a subset of kids; those with disabilities; people who cannot begin to defend and protect themselves.
Education receives precious little funding. Yet Nealon has squandered countless thousands and thousands of dollars on lawyers’ and other fees. That money should have been spent on teachers’ salaries, more comprehensive services, better facilities, new equipment, teaching the teachers, etc. There is absolutely no value-add in paying lawyers. It is of no benefit to society to increase the bottom line of private law firms. Look how many times you have had to pay lawyers’ fees only to have Nealon and the system that he represents officially judged to be WRONG, out of compliance.
He has denied children their rights and the State has found the County to be in the wrong. You, as the head of this County system, are responsible for denying kids a free and quality education in the least restrictive environment and pump sorely needed funding into a black hole of legal fees. It is time to put an end to this. Nealon needs to be fired.
I understand that you are his friend; if you can’t bear the thought of terminating him, at least remove him from the office that he is in and put someone who is qualified into that office. Support a leader who will move King George out of the slime that it currently is in, someone who will drive our educational system to meet standards and ensure that our kids get a free, quality education in the least restrictive environment. Support someone who is dedicated to the intent as well as the letter of the law. Children must ALWAYS come first. Giving an employee a satisfactory evaluation when his department has failed to meet standards for at least three years running, to have been evaluated by the State as systemically non-compliant is not even prima facia.
Accountability starts at the top. No employee should ever feel comfortable in saying “I don’t work that way. I am not accountable.” They can only do that if they reside in a system where that attitude flows from the top down. People are accountable only if we allow them to be.
And I am calling out to all of the elected officials that I have cc’d on this email: we make laws to safeguard and protect citizens’ rights; to provide for the common welfare. Ours is a government “Of the People, By the People and For the People.” But those are just words on paper if we do not stand up and execute them; turn them into tangible works.
Children cannot wait years for issues to be resolved by lawyers in court. By that time, the window of opportunity for learning is already closed to them, regardless of the legal decision. The long-term cost that we are accepting by standing by cannot be simply counted in the dollars spent frivolously. Here in King George County, we do not have any elementary school that meets standards to send our kids to; we do not have any private schools (not to mention that most could not afford them even if we did); schools in surrounding counties are not an option.
In the case of my child, the only way that we could get her the education that an average child is required to get as defined in this state was to pay for the services at Huntington Learning Center. That has got to be unacceptable. Do not stand by and let this continue. We, as citizens, cannot allow children to be pre-destined to inferiority and ignorance because we let a couple of people in key positions play games.
I can’t help but be plagued by a line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” We have serious, systemic problems that must be solved. In King George County, it is not “No Child Left Behind.” Rather, it is force the kids down and ensure they do not recover. That is a perversion of public service.
We intend to follow the legal path for remedies. We are going to file state complaints on every single action that even hints of irregularity and we are considering filing for a due process hearing. We certainly will not back down. Our daughters are far too important and precious to us.
I expressed to Mr. Millward and separately to Mr. Gilbert that this situation is a real shame. The two important sides in this equation (the family and the actual educators) believe in each other and want the best for the children; want to work together for the benefit of the kids. But, we have these bureaucrats between us who prevent the simplest of actions to occur.
 I am asking you to fix that situation. Not just for us, but for all the children of King George County. You can make things happen quickly. If not, we will go the longer road and ensure that the right thing is done at least for our kids. Seize this opportunity to make things right. Refuse to waste another dollar on lawyers. Take action as a public servant who is jealous of the trust that the public has placed in you. Own the state of King George County Schools.
Leland J. Holmquest




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