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Lanesboro Schools faulted by MN Department of Education for handling of student in special education program

“Our community is great. We have great teachers, and good kids and good families,” the student's mother Stephanie Ferschweiler said. “But our administration is so broken."

Bentley Strahl and Stephanie Ferschweiler
Lanesboro third-grader Bentley Strahl and his mom Stephanie Ferschweiler on Wednesday, April 27, 2022, in Lanesboro.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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LANESBORO — A Lanesboro mom has been pushing to get her child a better education in her small town, and has gone all the way to the Minnesota Department of Education to make that happen.

Stephanie Ferschweiler’s son Bentley is enrolled in the special education program at Lanesboro Public Schools. According to Ferschweiler, Bentley first began having behavioral issues in preschool after his father passed away. He started going through various counseling programs, which helped some of the time.

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“Things never really got better at school, even though they were getting better at home,” Ferschweiler said. “Our son was coming home from school crying, not wanting to go to school, running away from school, and being aggressive (with) staff. They started calling us to come get him from school and not allowing him to come back to school the next day.”

That routine became so frequent, Ferschweiler said, that she had to switch from full time to supplemental at her job in the surgical department of the Mayo Clinic.

Students enrolled in special education services are supposed to receive what’s known as an IEP, or an individualized education program. That program is devised through the collaboration of school officials, parents and educators.

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Ferschweiler filed a complaint against Lanesboro Public Schools, addressing some of the issues she saw happening.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education’s response to Ferschweiler's complaint, Bentley’s disability is “in the area of emotional behavioral disorder.” According to Ferschweiler, Bentely excels academically, registering at a fifth grade level in math and reading even though he’s only in the third grade.

On April 11, the Minnesota Department of Education found the school district in violation on two of the four complaints Ferschweiler brought forward.

Specifically, the DOE said the school district erred when it “failed to propose a revised IEP to address the student’s anticipated behavioral needs,” that it “failed to educate the student in the least restrictive environment described by his 2021 IEP,” and also it “failed to provide the student and the complainant with written suspension notices.”

"He was spending 100% of his day, besides a small amount of time, in the special education room, even though his IEP told us he was going to be with his peers and attempt to spend time with them,” Ferschweiler said while speaking about a number of the issues.

The same document from the Department of Education outlined a number of corrective actions for the school district. Among other obligations, the district is required to offer the family compensatory services “to make up for any loss in the student’s skills.”

Ferschweiler said the administration has not discussed or even acknowledged the complaint to her.

Lanesboro Public Schools Superintendent Matt Schultz said due to privacy requirements, he’s unable to comment on the situation. He also declined to comment on the district’s special education department in general.

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Ferschweiler also tried taking some of the issues to the school board to speak about some of the issues she thought needed to be addressed. The board allowed her a few minutes to speak, which didn’t seem like enough time to Ferschweiler.

She began a petition in an effort to pressure the district into addressing the issues, at one point even speaking about the petition on social media. As of April 28, 2022, roughly a week and a half after being uploaded, it had been viewed roughly 1,400 times.

“Through conversations with the Pacer Advocacy Center, The Minnesota Department of Education, lawyers and other teachers, I found out that everything that was happening with our school system was illegal,” she said in the video she posted online.

Although the state just came out with its decision earlier this month, it isn’t the first time someone has noticed issues with the school district’s special education department. In fact, a former paraprofessional in the district, Pam Flattum, said it’s the reason she left her job.

Flattum is also Bentley’s grandmother. But she was critical of the district’s operations long before it became an issue for her grandson.

There were a number of issues that stood out to her. At the time, the other paraprofessionals in the department didn’t know what an IEP was, she said. Nor did they know about CPI training, which allows educators to appropriately restrain a child if they are actively hurting themselves or someone else. She also was asked to ride with a student on a bus multiple times before she was informed the child suffered from seizures.

“I was trying to advocate for the kids because they weren’t getting the resources and the education and the help they needed,” Flattum said. “I just feel like the special education department in that school is just nonexistent and not important to the administration at all.”

Both Flattum and Ferschweiler said they wanted the best for the district. Flattum went to the district herself, had children go through the district, and now has grandchildren in the district.

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Ferschweiler echoed that sentiment.

“Our community is great. We have great teachers, and good kids and good families,” Ferschweiler said. “But our administration is so broken. There’s so much room for improvement.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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