Pending Legislation Would Give Special Education Parent Advisory Councils a Non-Voting Seat on Local School Committees

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State Rep. James Arciero recently joined members of the Westford and Chelmsford Special Education Parent Advisory Councils (SEPACs) to testify in support of legislation to giving SEPACs a non-voting seat on local school committees and to give parents and special education students a greater voice in local education.

The legislation, House Bill 3911: An Act To Ensure Representation Of Special Education Parent Advisory Councils On School Committees, was heard before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. Also testifying in favor of the bill were SEPAC Westford School Committee members Alicia Curtin Mallon and Gloria Miller, Westford SEPAC parent and co-chair Kathleen Healy Norton, and Chelmsford SEPAC President Laurie McCarron.

“I believe as a person who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder as a child, that special education needs to be a priority in our schools and that every child deserves the right to receive the best education possible.  This legislation will start a conversation about the challenges our special education parents and children face as they go through the public education system,” said Arciero, who was diagnosed at an early age and graduated from the Westford public school system.

Testifying before the Joint Committee on Education, Mallon said: “While the current laws require districts to have a relationship with the SEPAC, they do not specify how to do so.  As a result, there is still widespread misunderstanding of what a SEPAC is and inconsistency in the application of the law.  This bill uses as a model the existing law that provides the same kind of ex-officio, non-voting, non-privileged voice to student councils across the Commonwealth.  Our hope is to clarify the relationship and help facilitate the collaborative relationship the original law calls for.”

“Every decision a school committee makes needs to be viewed through a special education lens because every decision will impact special education students, and there is just no substitute for the lived experience of a special education parent and their unique insights and perspectives,” said Miller. “Special education needs a guaranteed seat at the table and this important legislation accomplishes that goal.”

Filed at the request of Mallon and other Westford SEPAC families, the bill would allow for the selection of a member of a local Special Education Parent Advisory Council to serve as an ex-officio, non-voting member of a municipal school committee. The membership of each local SEPAC organization will select their ex-officio school committee member to represent them and their interests. SEPACs are Special Education Parent Advisory Councils that exist to advocate for special needs education in the local K-12 schools in Massachusetts, as instituted by Massachusetts state law.

Kathleen Healy Norton, co-chair of Westford SEPAC, noted that SEPACs are required by MGL Chapter 71B.

“I applaud Alicia, Gloria, Kathy and Laurie for their advocacy for special education and the needs of these students. This is their idea and I give them all the credit, and I am happy to be working with them and the other SEPAC families and advocates to make this change a reality,” said Arciero who filed the bill following discussions at a Westford-Chelmsford SEPAC Day on the Hill event several months ago.

The mission of a SEPAC is to work for understanding of, respect for and support of all children with special needs in the community. They exist to promote a network of parents of children with special needs and to provide a forum to share information.  The group also advises the school administrations and school committees on the development and operation of special education programs, teacher training, parent teach interaction, and the promotion of understanding, acceptance and inclusion in the school and greater community.

“While I know that our school systems are miles ahead of where they were in regards to special education since my time in elementary school, I always feel that we can do better and can work to improve how we deal with these important issues that impact our young people for their entire lives.  I believe this will be the start of a very important conversation regarding special education,” said Arciero.