In response to an independent evaluation of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s controversial Special Education Program, superintendent Dianne Talarico presented a preliminary response to the school board April 17th.

She began with a public apology.

“As the superintendent, I’d like to begin by saying that I apologize for any pain and suffering experienced by any key stakeholders in our school district,” Talarico said. “I also want you to know that I accept full responsibility for the situation that we find ourselves in today and ultimately, as the superintendent and the head of the organization, the buck does stop with me.”

She then introduced the initial response — with several initial action steps — to the audit of the district’s Special Education Program, which was conducted by Lou Barber and Associates from December to March and addressed the district policy of requiring parents of special education students to sign confidential- ity clauses in their settlement agreements. The policy was instituted about four years ago and has been met with much opposition.

While the independent evaluation commended the district on many issues, the study did note several concerns — including the fact that confidentiality clauses create a sense of “secret deals and unequal treatment of students and families.”

There are more than 1,500 special education students being served by the district, and within the past three years, the district has entered into over 140 settlement agreements.

“The use of settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses needs to be reduced dramatically,” the consultants said, add- ing that the district needs to “create a culture of much more transparency and openness in dealing with the students and families.”

The consultants also found that the district “utilizes settlement agreements to a much greater extent than other districts in the area. This has become an established practice that is initiated almost immediately upon a disagreement at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team level. The district must significantly decrease the usage of settlement agreements.”

In June, the Santa Monica City Council threatened to withhold approximately $500,000 in funding to the school district unless the district placed a moratorium on the policy and revisited the issue.

As Talarico presented the district’s preliminary response, she said, “I want you to know that I am taking the first steps in being part of the solution. I want to acknowledge that we are not perfect. I want to also acknowledge that problems do exist in our school district.”

She added, “What is most apparent and what has become abundantly clear is that we must look forward and that we pledge to enter a healing phase in our community. We should and we will view this as an opportunity to grow, not just the school district, but the community as a whole. Today, our school district takes the first step toward healing — through the inside out and the outside in. We cannot do this critical work alone.”

In the preliminary draft response to the audit of the Special Education Program, Talarico presented a framework that included five key areas — creating a culture of inclusion, collaboration and professional development, financial management, modification to existing special education practices and a regular review of the district’s Special Education programs.

“There’s no quick fix here,” Talarico stressed. “And there’s no panacea.”

A complete review of Special Education Program services will continue and a multi-use phase action plan will be developed during the next school year.

At the board meeting, about a dozen parents of special education children spoke, as did teachers union president Harry Keiley, PTA Council president Rebecca Kennerly and Santa Monica City Councilman Bob Holbrook, who was a special education student himself years ago.

“I appreciate your apology,” Holbrook told Talarico. ” I think it was very heartfelt. I just hope you move forward in a very positive manner with the kids coming first.”

Holbrook, who had a serious speech impediment as a child, pointed out that he had succeeded and even gone on to receive a doctorate degree.

“I got through it,” he said. “I’m okay — and that’s what I hope every special education student can do.”

After public comment, the school board discussed the audit and the district’s preliminary response amongst themselves.

Board member Kelly Pye noted that the audit was “a valuable road map for us to follow as we look to change direction.”

“I think it details serious issues and demands serious response,” Pye said. “There is a lot of work to be done, but it is a start. I do believe we have a very valuable start with the Lou Barber report.”

The board had mixed feelings about confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements.

Some felt that, occasionally, the clauses would be necessary to enter into, for example, in financial disputes.

Others, including school board president Oscar de la Torre, were strongly opposed to them.

However, the board made it very clear that the temporary moratorium on confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements be continued and be made very clear to parents of children with special needs. And if a parent wants a settlement agreement with a confidentiality clause, that request should be put into writing.

In the end, the school board asked for Talarico to come back with other options or models for incorporating settlement agreements into the Individualized Education Program.

The board also agreed that an ombudsman or mediator might be necessary to help negotiate in certain situations — at least initially.

Talarico and district staff are expected to come back to the board with a more detailed response that addresses the board’s concerns in the near future.