Make Iowa City school playgrounds right for all children

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My life’s passion is to advocate for children who need an extra boost to accomplish their dreams. My advocacy includes founding the Children’s Center for Therapy, which grew to be the largest pediatric therapy rehabilitation provider in Johnson County with outreach services nearby communities. Over the years, I have been privileged to meet parents, grandparents, and caregivers of children with special needs.

My comfort zone has been challenged by witnessing first hand the fear of retaliation these families have for speaking out, especially in light of last year’s Iowa Department of Education’s special education audit, which confirmed Iowa City Community School District’s culture of retaliation.

Shimek school mom Melissa Krishnan has watched in sadness as her son watched other children play on the school playground structure ever hopeful that he would someday be able to play alongside his peers. For years she’s been told the school’s insurance will only allow children to play if they are able to access structures independently. So when Ms. Krishnan heard Shimek was finally slated to receive a new playground she was delighted, and her son was ecstatic, that at last, there would be access to the playground structure.

Unfortunately, the proposed playground is not adequately accessible for Ms. Krishnan’s son. Despite Ms. Krishnan’s pleas and a strong supportive letter from the Shimek Co-Vice President of the PTO sharing how the playground review process was fraught with controversy, a divided Iowa City Community School District board refused to accommodate Ms. Krishnan’s request to review modifications to the proposed playground, and instead approved, on March 28, the inadequate playground design.

Among the problems, the board had asked its administration whether Kingsley Botchway, ICCSD’s Equity Director, had seen the playground drawings. The administration’s response was “Yes, I believe he has.” However, Mr. Botchway was not notified that he was the ICCSD’s ADA Compliance officer until a meeting on April 11th concerning the Shimek playground, two weeks after the Board vote where the board majority decided to “trust the process” and pass the playground proposal.

And what process was the board majority referring to? The process where the board last year received the disheartening and severe results of a state special education audit noting many legal violations and a culture of retaliation and then simply reassigned the former special education director to another special education role. And where a parent of a special-needs child wrote, in accordance with her constitutional right of free speech, a thoughtful letter to ICCSD’s board and administration, addressing issues such as trust, retaliatory culture, and the superintendent’s raise and was then threatened by a board member with the possibility of legal action. And where that same board member’s spouse has made what some characterize as a bullying post on social media about the Shimek school issues directed toward people who disagreed with her.

I cannot imagine having school children who play on our schools’ playgrounds learn that it is OK to leave the special needs kids sitting alone. Modifying the playground so it’s more accessible for her son is a win-win for all — our children benefit from living and playing in an integrated society.

Iowa has a long, proud, and rich history of granting civil rights. We were the third state to allow interracial marriage, we are home to the first public university to grant a law degree to a woman and an African American. We had the first female college newspaper editor, and the first state university to recognize an LGBT student organization. The first Mosque in North America was constructed in Cedar Rapids — there is more, much more. Let’s make ICCSD playgrounds right for all children. Please support our mom and her son, so he can enjoy playing on a playground along with his peers for his last three years of elementary school!

• Laura Westemeyer is a grateful wife and mother of three who has enough, and wants to help others navigate through the roadblocks that stand in the way.

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