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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The struggle on behalf of special needs students goes on

One of the demonstrators, an educational therapist, said the private entities that provide special needs services exist for the very purpose of giving parents the option to have those services provided for their children even when the island Education Department can’t immediately provide them. (Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

Service providers serve latest notice with protest at Education Dept.

By Richard Gutiérrez

Special to The Star

Members of the Puerto Rican Special Needs Service Providers Association (APPSSRE by its Spanish initials) held a protest in front of the island Department of Education (DE) headquarters in San Juan on Tuesday morning with the intention of having their voices heard on an issue that is close to their hearts.

The organization claims that access to a public, free, and proper education is essential for the development of special needs students. However, the APPSSRE believes that it is at a crisis point with the DE because, the organization says, the agency has not been responsible regarding its obligation to provide public policies that support the optimal development of students with special needs.

The APPSSRE believes that decisions regarding public policies must be based on scientific and ethical fundamentals that incorporate respect for the constitutional rules and the laws that govern the DE. The group also states that decisions that are made must be consulted under social justice criteria that reforms the continuous violation of rights they say is still being committed by the commonwealth agency.

On top of that, the association’s membership believes it is important to provide worthy and adequate conditions under private contracts, while it is also essential to promote conditions that offer stability to all service providers, and at the same time guarantee special needs students access to quality services that address their needs, as the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other local laws promote.

The main thing the APPSSRE was looking to accomplish with Tuesday’s demonstration was for the DE to ease communication with provisional remedy service providers. The companies have been more than willing to provide “private services,” for special needs students, the APPSSRE members said, yet they said they have witnessed their individual corporations become increasingly controlled by the agency.

The demonstrators expressed their genuine interest in continuing to serve the special needs student community; however, they said, an excessive number of impositions and sanctions have served to shield the DE from creating an authentic provisional remedy union. The provisional remedy union is supposed to provide the option for parents of special needs kids to choose private special needs services for their children. However, the APPSSRE believes that the provisional remedy union does not offer such justice to the special needs community, in part because the DE has total control over it.

Due to the absence of the Education secretary to continue the negotiating process that was initiated five weeks ago by the APPSSRE, the members said they decided to protest in front of DE headquarters to promote the establishment of agreements that guarantee therapy services to students in the Special Needs program through the 2023-2024 school year.

“The Department of Education has the obligation to cover the costs of student therapy on the Provisional Remedy Union private level; we are registered through Provisional Remedy, and through Provisional Remedy parents select a private provider and contract them,” Alice Dana Bobadilla, an educational therapist, told the STAR. “Our relationship is supposed to only be between parent and service provider. The only concern the Department of Education has in this case is to pay for the services provided by these private entities. However, every year this process has become much harder; they are asking for requirements that should only be presented to entities that go in a direct contract with the department. We don’t have a direct contract with the department because we are private entities, and on top of that, the Department of Education doesn’t pay on time for the services we provide, so we must resort to loans to cover the services, because the Department of Education is not paying on time.”

The educational specialist added that she and her colleagues feel that the DE only wants to disable private providers and instead focus only on services that are directly working with the agency; however, Dana Bobadilla said, those services are not enough to meet the needs of the special needs students. That is why private entities exist, to give parents the option and the opportunity to have services provided for their children even when the DE can’t provide them immediately.

“The department not only makes it hard for service providers to offer their services, but it also makes it excessively difficult for parents to get the services their children need,” she said. “Sometimes they even have to come all the way to the Department of Education headquarters to battle so their children can get the services they need. A lot of parents don’t have the resources or transportation to drive all the way to the headquarters. It’s not fair. The Department of Education has one of the highest budgets on the entire island; they can’t possibly say that they don’t have the money to pay on time or to organize this situation.”

Dana Bobadilla added that even though the service providers have had direct communication with the provisional remedy union director, she does not have the power to make decisions that involve clear communication between the department and private entities.

Meanwhile, a mother who was also taking part in the protest told the STAR that “the Department of Education has not cared one bit about any of the claims we have been making for weeks.”

“I am personally very unhappy with … the online platform MIPPE, which is supposed to be working so that my child’s case can be processed,” she said. “My child has very specific therapies that he needs, and yet the programming of this platform does not allow these therapies to be provided the exact way my child needs them. We went to a public hearing last year in September, [where] representatives of the department even stated that the situation is due to economic issues of the department, because they save money by not paying to fix the platform and the more services they deny, the less money they have to pay. They don’t care about our children at all.”

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