North Platte parent files complaint with DESE

A North Platte parent is claiming the school has failed when it comes to helping and educating her daughter.

Samantha Bennett reached out to The Citizen last week to discuss issues she and her daughter, Calli Fanning, have dealt with this school year.

Her frustration came to a peak when she recently learned her autistic daughter’s teacher left the district and she wasn’t informed for more than a month. She has filed a complaint with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to try to address the issue.

The problems with the North Platte School District and teacher Laura Toliver started almost as soon as the school year started, Bennett said.

During a closed session board meeting on Monday, Feb. 11, the district accepted the resignation of Toliver.

Bennett was prepared for her daughter to start kindergarten under the guidance of Chelsie Biermann, a K-2 special education teacher, but a change in position between Biermann and Toliver occurred prior to the school year. Bennett was familiar with Toliver from her work with the preschool students but learned just before school started that Biermann was ‘no longer with the school district.’

When contacted, Biermann said the switch in jobs wasn’t mutually agreed upon. She was told she could move or resign.

“I had no problem with her (Laura) last year, so I was OK with it,” Bennett said. Now, Bennett says Toliver was ‘in over her head’ with her new position.

The issues with Toliver started in September with daily calls or text messages to Bennett — which she kept — telling her to come get her daughter from school because she had a fever. Bennett said when she picked up her daughter there wasn’t a fever. Bennett finally took Calli to a doctor, who told the mother children with autism usually ‘run hot’ and unless a fever is more than 101 to not worry much.

After that a note was sent to the school, Toliver — using her personal cell phone — texted Bennett saying Calli was ‘acting weird’ and was maybe having a seizure, which caused panic to the mother.

“There was no way I could keep a job as often as they were calling me to come pick her up,” said Bennett, who shares one car with her boyfriend, who works in St. Joseph.

Another instance she noted was Toliver telling her Calli had a temperature of 101.4. When her mother took the temperature, it showed 99. All told, Calli missed 36 days the first semester, according to records provided to her mother.

Bennett noted Toliver routinely tracked the violent behaviors that Calli exhibited during the day — scratching and hitting — in a daily report paper that went to her to go along with text messages to the mother.

North Platte superintendent Karl Matt was asked about the board’s policy on teachers using personal devices to communicate.

“The district does not have a specific board policy that prohibits staff members from using personal communication devices to communicate with parents of district students,” the superintendent said. “However, the district does have board policies that generally address staff communication with students and parents. All district staff members are required to comply with board policies, and the district encourages staff members to use personal communication devices only as a last resort when communicating with parents.”

Bennett asked to come to school one day to see how her daughter acts and if the behavior reported by Toliver was happening. At home, Bennett said she never saw that behavior from Calli. The district denied her request due to a policy regarding invasion of privacy.

After Dec. 17, those letters stopped, which came after Bennett had a meeting with new elementary principal Kellie Goodlet. The new principal replaced Cathy Hubble, who resigned last year but is currently part of a lawsuit filed by a parent alleging bullying against a student with down syndrome. Matt and special education paraprofessional Christine Roper were also named in the lawsuit that is currently in federal court.

Despite what seemed to be a rift between the teacher and student, Bennett noted that one time her daughter came home with a backpack full of new clothes given to her by Toliver.

On Dec. 11, Bennett told The Citizen that she got a visit from the Division of Family Services to check on living conditions after a report was made about her son having a scratch on his neck. The mother of four ­— and two with autism — believes someone connected to the school district made the call.

A letter from DFS dated Jan. 29 informed Bennett a case wouldn’t be opened against her and the mattered was closed.

The last time she talked to Toliver was Dec. 13 and she recalled crying when she got off the phone and feeling ‘like the worst mother ever.’

Bennett finally addressed the issue with how Toliver spoke to her with Matt. On Dec. 17, a meeting was set between Matt, Bennett and Lisa Robbins, an autism specialist. Instead, the 8 a.m. meeting was with Robbins, Goodlet and Bennett.

Bennett said she reached out to Toliver to advise her on Dec. 18 that Calli’s doctor put her on ADHD medicine, but noted it might be a month or two before there is any difference.

Bennett followed up on the 19th and didn’t get a response from Toliver, but didn’t try again. School dismissed for Christmas break on Dec. 21.

When school resumed early last month, the daily comments about Calli’s behavior seemed to be improving to the mother. The daily notes about how aggressive and mean her daughter was to Toliver wasn’t listed.

“I thought things chilled out a little bit,” Bennett said.

On Friday, Jan. 25, Goodlet called Bennett to tell her Toliver was no longer in the classroom and paraprofessional Rebecca Stone was in charge of the classroom. Toliver had reportedly been gone for three weeks — leaving prior to the break — and hadn’t came back. Bennett said Goodlet advised her the district was hoping Toliver would return from Texas.

“I thought she was just gone for a few days, but people from school were telling me she left before Christmas break,” Bennett said.

When asked if there was a substitute for Stone’s job as a para and if Stone was getting paid as a para or a substitute, Matt said he couldn’t comment due to confidential personnel information.

Matt also couldn’t comment on when Toliver last taught in the district, citing confidential personnel information that is considered a closed record under board policy.

“We have had a certified teacher or certified substitute teacher in the classroom with students at all times,” he said. “When a teacher is absent it is common practice to employ a certified substitute teacher in the classroom. The instructor may or may not have that specific certification but the substitute certificate gives the instructor the ability to be a classroom teacher on a temporary basis.

“We were also given written authority from a representative of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that our program was in compliance with the temporary use of a substitute teacher.”

Bennett filed a complaint with DESE on Jan. 31 about her daughter going five weeks without a certified special education teacher. They also stopped and started therapy without Bennett’s knowledge or consent. DESE contacted her on Monday, Feb. 4 letting her know they are in the phone call stages in the investigation.

“I want to know who will be taking that spot,” Bennett said, who has a meeting scheduled with district officials on Feb. 18.

She got an answer on Monday, Feb. 11, when she was told by Matt in a meeting that Andrea Veatch, a third-grade teacher, would be the new special education teacher. Her hiring was approved later that night by the board.