Special education teacher Rachel Wannarka spoke to a reporter about mandated services that St. Paul Public Schools was failing to provide her students in 2018. She hoped it would serve as a wake-up call.
However, she was denied tenure, and forced to transfer to another school. Subsequently she quit her job, and filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Following an investigation, it was found that the school district had retaliated against Wannarka. In January, the school district settled with Wannarka for $74,000.
Wannarka is one of several teachers from different schools who spoke to a reporter in 2018. However, she was the only one who agreed to be named. Wannarka said in the article that dozens of her Humboldt High School students had individualized education plans (IEPs) that required more time with instructional assistants than the district was providing. As a result, disabled students were failing math in mainstream classes and being transferred to special education programs taught at lower levels, she explained.
The article was published on February 13, 2018. The following day Humboldt Principal Mike Sodomka observed Wannarka in the classroom. The review had been scheduled before the news article was published. Sodomka rated Wannarka much more poorly during the evaluations after the article was published. Minnesota teachers typically get tenure after three years with a district, but St. Paul instead offered Wannarka a fourth probationary year in a different school. Wannarka declined and went to work for a charter school.
In recent years, other teachers in the district have been awarded similar settlements. Peggy Anne Severs settled for $75,000 after claiming First Amendment retaliation in her lawsuit. She was placed on involuntary leave the day after a 2015 meeting with her principal in which she claimed the district was breaking federal law by reassigning special education students to inclusive classroom settings without regard for what their IEPs required.
Unfortunately, disabled students frequently face problems when it comes to education. I was included fully in classes, but I still struggled at times. Math was especially challenging for me.
Cerebral Palsy affects my spatial skills. This made geometry difficult for me. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who modified the curriculum for me. In middle school, my home economics teacher refused to give me an accessible assignment.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of school was the emphasis on my lack of socializing. It came up frequently in my IEP meetings. The staff often thought that I didn’t socialize with my peers enough. When I would sit by myself in the cafeteria, this worried them. I never understood why socialization was so important. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect. By the time I was in high school, I didn’t want to make friends anymore.
My school district’s transition plan for me was very minimal. It was merely a few sentences within my IEP. When I was a sophomore, the special education director suggested that I pursue a career that didn’t involve complex math. I knew I wouldn’t major in computer science, engineering, or any similar field.
I was required to be reevaluated by my school district every three years. As a part of this process, I always had to take two tests called the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. It was frustrating when I would read the results. The results showed that I struggled with math, and did well in English. I already knew this, and the test seemed unnecessary.
Disabled students should be able to have access to the resources they need. In the U.S., disabled students have the right to receive a free appropriate public education. However, in many cases, schools aren’t equipped to provide resources. When there isn’t enough support, disabled students often fall through the cracks.
Rozalski, Michael, et al. “Free Appropriate Public Education, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Developing and Implementing Individualized Education Programs.” Laws, vol. 10, no. 2, May 2021, p. 38. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/laws10020038.
Verges, Josh. “St. Paul District Settles for $120,000 with Teacher Who Told Reporter about Legal Concerns.” Twin Cities, Northwest Publications Inc., 30 Nov. 2022, https://www.twincities.com/2022/11/27/st-paul-district-settles-for-120000-with-teacher-who-told-reporter-about-legal-concerns/.