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White House Hosts Special Education Administrator at Listening Session

By Christina A. Samuels — February 14, 2017 2 min read
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Jane M. Quenneville, the principal of a public school that serves children and youths with severe disabilities, was among the parents and educators invited to the White House Tuesday for what was billed as a listening session with President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The guests—which also included teachers, parents who have children enrolled in public and in private schools, and home-schooling parents—did much of the listening, Quenneville said. “There wasn’t a lot of conversation at the table,” said Quenneville, the only education administrator at the event. (One of the participants, Julie R. Baumann, introduced herself as a 5th grade special education teacher in New Jersey.) The conversation lasted about 30 minutes, she said.

But Quenneville said she did have conversations with staff members before and after the session about two areas that concern her: special education teacher shortages and children with disabilities educated separately from their general education peers.

“Students with mild disabilities continute to be in segregated settings throughout this country,” said Quenneville. A board member of the Council for Exceptional Children, Quenneville is the principal of the 80-student Kilmer Center in Vienna, Va., which serves students with autism and intellectual disabilities. But before taking that position in 2015, she held special education leadership positions in the school districts of Alexandria, Va., and Virginia Beach.

During her time in Alexandria, “we worked really hard on our inclusive practices,” she said: The percentage of students with disabilities who spent most of the school day in regular education classes rose from around 40 percent to over 70 percent during her tenure. (Note: I interviewed Quenneville in 2015 for an article about Alexandria’s work in improving its postsecondary transition program for students with disabilities.)

Quenneville also said that she renewed the council’s invitation to DeVos to meet with its leadership. “She was very receptive,” Quenneville said. “We’re looking forward to another conversation.”

Trump Asks About Autism Prevalence

At the start of the session, the press was allowed in long enough to hear the guests introduce themselves. Quenneville’s mention of her school’s autism program prompted Trump to ask if she had seen a large increase in the population of students with autism.

“So what’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, ... it’s really a horrible thing to watch,” he said. “Do you have any idea?”

Quenneville mentioned the prevalence numbers of autism, calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 1 in 68 nationwide. “Well, maybe we can do something,” Trump said.

Many experts suggest that at least a portion of the increase in autism prevalence is due to increased awareness of the development disorder, as well as children being diagnosed with autism who in prior years may have been labeled as having a learning or intellectual disability.

Trump has shown interest in autism before. On the campaign trail, Trump spoke in favor of spacing out vaccines, repeating the disproven claim that vaccines cause autism.

C-SPAN has provided a video of the start of the meeting, which is viewable below:

Photo: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers on Tuesday at the White House.—Evan Vucci/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.