Uneasiness In Uncharted Waters

Some parents, and a former faculty member at Bellevue Community College, say the college's groundbreaking program for developmentally disabled students isn't living up to its promises.

July 21, 2008

Heralded as a modern-day extension of the civil rights movement, the pioneering degree program for developmentally disabled students at Bellevue Community College has a loyal fan base and a history of great press. But some parents -- and a former instructor at the college -- now say there have been efforts to force out students who face some of the biggest challenges.

Officials at the college, which is based near Seattle, Wash., deny that students are being weeded out of the program. They are, however, studying the possibility of creating an additional non-degree program -- an apparent acknowledgment that the degree program the college has prided itself on isn't a fit for some of the students who were admitted.

Bellevue has never claimed that its "Venture Program" is for everyone. Accredited in 2006, the first-of-its-kind associate degree program targets “high functioning” developmentally disabled students who can work at a minimum of the fourth-grade level in academic courses. According to the college’s Web site, students also “typically” have an IQ of 70 or above -- a criterion that would exclude a significant swath of the cognitively disabled population

But even given its stated standards, Venture has been touted for giving students with a broad range of disabilities, including Down Syndrome, a chance to earn college degrees. There is some growing concern, however, about whether that promise has been kept.

According to parents interviewed for this article, most of whom asked not to be identified, the program hasn’t accepted a student with Down’s since 2004. Furthermore, a former teacher says he felt pressured to build a case against students who were performing academically but difficult to teach.

Marty Bucher, who taught work force classes for Venture, said he witnessed a philosophy becoming “ingrained” in the program that he summed up this way:

“These [students] have these problems, they’re not real easy to work with, so let’s find ways to push them out of the program,” he said. “A lot of parents were concerned about that, and should have been.”

Bucher says four to five students, who were performing satisfactorily in academic courses, were “targeted” by program administrators for removal. He recalls a specific instance where he says he was urged by higher ups to help get rid of a problem student.

“I was pressured to say [a student] was close to getting violent, and that would have torpedoed him out of the program,” Bucher said. “The fact was, he wasn’t close to getting violent.”

Bucher’s contract was not renewed by the program’s prior director, who has since resigned amid complaints about her leadership. But Bucher says he would have left the program anyway because of his concerns, and one of the students’ parents suggested he was a victim of retaliation.

“He wasn't supporting their effort to get rid of some of the students they wanted to get rid of,” said the parent, who asked not be identified for fear that it could complicate her child’s future in Venture.

Venture officials say there has been no effort to weed out difficult students. Asked if students who were performing academically had been targeted as some have suggested, a Bellevue spokesman said “categorically, no.” The spokesman said he did not know if any students with Down Syndrome had been admitted in the last four years.

College Considers New Path

Bellevue officials are responding to the concerns of parents, according to Bob Adams, the college’s spokesman. The college wants to maintain an accredited associate degree program, which by definition will mean that not everyone can succeed. But administrators are now discussing the possibility of offering an additional program, where students who aren’t ready for the rigors of the degree program could still get a certificate or some other validation of their efforts. Similar programs are already offered at several colleges.

“Not every student can earn that [associate] credential, and if that’s the case we need to find a way to help that [other] student progress,” Adams said.

Adams concedes that communication with parents, some of whom say their concerns have fallen on deaf ears for more than a year, needs to be improved. To that end, officials sent an e-mail to parents Friday morning that promised further dialogue. The e-mail, which was sent a day after Inside Higher Ed first inquired about the complaints, assured Venture parents that a review to “address concerns brought to our attention” was ongoing.

Director Candidate Had Troubling Past

The e-mail also discussed the college’s search for a new director, a process that got off to a rocky start. According to the e-mail, the search process for a director has been started anew. That assurance is no doubt comfort to parents, who learned that a leading candidate for the position had a troubling history that had not been openly addressed when the candidate met with parents.

Len Aron, who once served as superintendent of the Washington School for the Deaf, made it through the search committee’s initial screening of candidates and was among two people interviewed for the job. But it wasn’t until after Aron’s meeting with parents that one parent ran a Google search of him. What she found were stories about Aron’s past, including the details of his pressured resignation from the School for the Deaf.

Aron stepped down from the school in 2003, after a sex-abuse scandal prompted a state panel to say that he lacked the "innate instincts required to protect children's safety." Leading up to his resignation, Aron claimed a 14-year-old student had “made up” a story about being raped on a cafeteria floor, adding that the student "like a lot of adolescent girls, seeks attention."

Aron said he took sex abuse allegations at the school "very seriously," adding that he had spearheaded reforms to deal with the problems, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported.

Adams, speaking on behalf of Bellevue, said Friday that Aron was no longer being considered for the director’s post.

“We have reopened the search, so that candidate is no longer in the picture,” he said.

But parents weren’t given such assurances when Aron’s past first surfaced. After his interview, news stories about Aron were forwarded to Bruce Riveland, dean of continuing education. In response to a June 26 e-mail that included those articles, Riveland didn’t express shock or say Aron’s past would disqualify him as a candidate. Instead, Riveland wrote this:

“Thanks for this report. What do you think about [Aron] today? Do you think he would be less prone to minimize issues and more likely to be proactive? What are your other impressions of him?”

Margaret Minnick, the parent who sent the e-mail, responded that she was “appalled that your committee passed him onto us.”

“You now think parents should support a man who handled a controversial situation by publicly trying to discredit a 14-year old,” she wrote. “You have got to be kidding!”

Riveland responded that he, too, wanted a “powerhouse” candidate for the job.

Student Forced Out, Parent Says

Minnick is among the parents concerned the program has shifted its mission. Her daughter, who has a below average IQ and obsessive-compulsive disorder, was removed from Venture classes -- temporarily, according to officials -- because of behavioral issues. Minnick said she initially agreed that her daughter needed more help before she could be successful at Venture, so she hired a psychiatrist to work with her daughter.

After working with the therapist outside of the program for more than a year, Minnick’s daughter was still denied re-entry to Venture. One of the program’s stated goals is to teach students “social and life skills,” but Venture’s then-director said that Minnick’s daughter couldn’t be re-admitted because she didn’t understand social relationships.

“She corresponds … in a manner that displays a ‘pal’ type relationship, demonstrating her inability to differentiate relationships,” wrote Mary Allason, who recently resigned as Venture’s director. “There is a ‘chain of command’ in relationships at school and work and she does not acknowledge this.”

According to the college’s own description of the program’s goals, Venture is designed to teach students some of the very skills Minnick’s daughter was said to have lacked. A course called “Communication Skills in the Workplace,” for instance, helps students to “identify and practice appropriate and successful methods of interfacing with co-workers and authority figures.”

Minnick was so frustrated by Allason’s response, that she wrote a July 14 letter to Jean Floten, the college’s president.

“Mary Allason has alienated high school administrators that feed students to the program, and created an atmosphere of suspicion and insecurity for the current students,” she wrote. “Believe me: These students have had a lifetime of hearing how they are inadequate. They don’t need BCC to reiterate the message.”

Inside Higher Ed requested an interview with Allason through college officials, but they said she was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

'In Over Her Head'

Bellevue officials would not discuss the reasons for Allason’s recent resignation, but Adams acknowledged there had been some “communication issues” in the past.

Allason took the helm a couple of years ago when the founding director, Cynthia Johnson, left the college. Allason’s job prior to becoming director was that of an administrative assistant, and critics charge that her lack of experience with the developmentally disabled was evident in her approach.

According to Bellevue officials, Allason has a master’s degree in education and “a lot of additional” experience working with “vulnerable populations” including victims of sexual and physical abuse. Late Friday, however, the college could not furnish a resume or confirm the titles Allason held prior to becoming an administrative assistant at Bellevue.

If there were any problems with Allason’s leadership, they are “ancient history,” according to Adams. But Allason didn’t resign until April 30, according to an e-mail she sent to parents. Furthermore, she was presenting herself as the “director” of the program to media outlets, including Inside Higher Ed , as late as last month.

Asked about Allason using the title of director after her resignation, Adams said she had stayed on to help with the program even after officially stepping down. The program has not named an interim director, but Adams mentioned several administrators now dealing with Venture-related matters.

Bucher, who taught at Venture for five years, said Allason was “in over her head” when she took the job. He added, however, that any person might have had trouble heading Venture. “In all fairness to Mary, one of the problems that she experienced is it really wasn’t funded and gotten behind financially by the school,” he said.

As an example, Bucher notes that as director Allason was forced to teach classes that were not staffed by faculty.

Part of Bellevue’s response to parental concerns has been the promise of an infusion of new money into Venture. The program will have new funding to increase the hours worked by the program coordinator, freeing up the director and program assistant so they won’t have to plan internships, according to Adams, the college’s spokesman.

Program Maintains Supporters

Even parents who raised concerns in this article tout the program’s lofty goals, and college officials suggest the parents of the approximately 50 students in the program have differing views about its success. Kathy Bates, whose daughter has a rare chromosome disorder, said she’s been “extremely pleased” with Venture.

Bates’s daughter is poised to graduate from Venture next year. While Bates has heard some grumbling from other parents, she says she feels “like I’m in the dark with respect to what the concerns of the parents are.”

One of the issues some parents may be grappling with is the unique nature of Venture, Bates said. As an accredited degree program, Venture is unlike other programs for developmentally disabled students. Unlike Bellevue’s prior programs, where students could audit classes without the pressures of passing and failing, Venture students do occasionally fail.

“One institution can’t be the panacea for everybody,” Bates said. “Just like I’m not going to go to Harvard; they won’t let me in at Yale either.”


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