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Parents confront Eanes ISD after students mock special needs classmate

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Eanes ISD parents are calling on the school board for an independent investigation. They say student costumes mocking a special needs student were not properly addressed by school administration. Tuesday night, one Westlake High School senior fought back tears as she told the school board how standing up for others has resulted in her being harassed and bullied.

Parents expressed concerned about photos surfacing from an October Halloween party. The pictures showed two Westlake students dressed as a special needs student and aide. The photo caption said “retard and handler” while a mock teacher ID labeled the aide as a “tard wrangler.” Parents told the board they felt this issue was inappropriately handled when the student who reported the photos ended up being the one in trouble.

The student who brought the costumes to light says she’s been verbally abused by her classmates and her car has been vandalized. Alyssa Tintori told the school board she reported to school administrators and a counselor what was happening but didn’t find support or help. Tintori said she was instead told to stop talking about it and to stop “seeking out” the bullying she was receiving.

“As a result of me standing up for what is right, I was harassed, bullied and alienated from my classmates. Since October, 30 I have been subjected to destructive words and malicious actions… some I will never forget,” Tintori told the Eanes ISD School Board. She said the way the situation was handled compromised her safety at school.

Jana McKelvey spoke on behalf of the district’s special education working group. “Right or wrong, the message we received as parents --we received it loud and clear, yet again-- is that Westlake’s brand is more important than the well-being and education of students with disabilities,” McKelvey said.

She called for an independent investigation and urged the board to immediately create an inclusion task force to identify barriers that special needs children face in Eanes ISD.

Parents told the board the entire situation could’ve been a huge learning experience for all students had it been handled differently. They also expressed concern that parents of the students involved were not contacted by school administrators.

Eanes ISD superintendent Dr. Tom Leonard released the following letter regarding the incident:

Dear Parents & Guardians,
You may have seen a report in the media involving an incident that occurred last fall connected to Westlake High School students. In order for our community to have a clearer picture of the situation, I would like to provide the following information.
To provide background, in October, Westlake High School administrators were made aware of an incident that took place at an off-campus, weekend Halloween party that involved Westlake students. We are proud of the multiple students who reported their concern to administrators. Although the event took place off campus, Westlake administrators investigated the issue, provided counseling to all students involved and issued appropriate consequences.
We did not make and have not made the details of those consequences public, of course, due to federal privacy laws put in place to protect all students. We cannot disclose details of situations related to student discipline, particularly when those students are minors and the incident is one where identities may be revealed. Even though some may come forward publicly with their perceptions of our response, we still must adhere to all legal, ethical and FERPA guidelines in how we comment.
To be clear, the initial event and all subsequent reports of bullying, harassment or property damage were investigated and handled appropriately by school administrators in coordination with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. When bullying reports are made to any school administrator, they are investigated fully and, when appropriate, consequences and counseling are provided. Our administrators follow board policy on bullying and mandatory training is administered annually. Further, this year the District implemented an online reporting system which has been used to report issues or concerns anonymously; all reports are investigated in a timely manner.
After the initial event last fall, the school took a proactive approach to educate all students on disability awareness and sensitivity and scheduled a student and staff in-service in February that focused on the importance of respecting students with special needs. During the assembly, RJ Mitte, an actor from the show “Breaking Bad” discussed his disability, the challenges he has overcome and the importance of identifying and intervening in bullying and harassment situations. He also discussed the perils of social media.
Eanes ISD will continue to educate students and staff on disability awareness, as we feel it is an important conversation that should be routinely discussed. We will continue our focus on social-emotional learning and a Board of Trustees’ priority focused on special education. We respect all our students, in particular, those with special needs. Working with our community, we share a commitment to assess situations such as this and to work toward counseling and educating all.
It is important to note, not everyone is privy to all of the information in this investigation, including the numerous student and teacher interviews, video footage and bullying reports connected to this incident. Mr. Ramsey and his team reviewed all, consulted with internal legal counsel, worked with the Sheriff’s Office and kept the Board of Trustees informed. I have complete confidence in Mr. Ramsey’s team and their commitment to maintain a safe and respectful environment at Westlake High School.
We ask our community to respect privacy considerations and to recognize we are not providing specifics on the investigation or any consequences because we are required to protect the confidentiality of our students and their families. Remember, there are details that are not public and we must be cognizant of the potential damage erroneous information based on assumptions can do.
Thank you for all you do to support our students,
Dr. Tom Leonard
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