Thursday, July 7, 2022

Missing hours?: How one mother is fighting the York County School Division for her child’s education

Larisa Turkatte and her son, Brandon. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)
Larisa Turkatte and her son, Brandon. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series about a mother’s experiences with the York County School Division.

Brandon Turkatte has autism and spends most of his days traveling to and from his doctor’s appointments. The 7-year-old has an eating disorder which makes it difficult for him to go to school with other children so Brandon gets his education at home from the York County School Division.

He is currently in second grade.

A “sweet” boy, Brandon is bilingual and understands both Russian and English. He talks quite frequently and loves to listen to music and currently finds pleasure in Christmas music sung by a plug-in Santa Claus figurine.

“He likes music,” his mother, Larisa, said. “He’ll listen to anything.”

Larisa describes Brandon as hyper-energetic child with a knack for technology and machinery. He understands how to operate tablets and computers but his mother encourages him to use other toys to entertain himself, instead of relying on technology.

When he is not eating or going to one of his five therapy sessions, he climbs throughout the house — on tables, bookshelf and other objects.

“If he just had autism he would be at school in a heartbeat,” Larisa said.

But Brandon has a disorder, known as oral aversion and feeding difficulties.

Every day, Brandon gets Applied Behavioral Analysis services at home, he goes to physical therapy once a week in Chesapeake, three times a week to Sentara Therapy Center at Treyburn for speech therapy and once a week for feeding and occupational therapy, also at Sentara.

It can be difficult teaching Brandon, his mother said.

Most days, Larisa asks Brandon for things like to bring her water or to perform simple tasks such as saying “I love you.” Her house is filled with dozens of items such as toys, books and even animals like a Dachshund dog and a few, small grey cats.

Why? Because Brandon needs to see things, physical things in action.

The locking mechanism on the glass door which leads to the Turkatte's backyard. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)
The locking mechanism on the glass door which leads to the Turkatte’s backyard. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)

Their home has doors additional locking mechanisms on top and the backyard is fenced in to prevent Brandon from running away.

Larisa said one time her mother took him to the grocery store and Brandon ran away. He was found climbing on top of a bookshelf, while onlookers stood by.

When she goes to give him food outside his specified meals times, he turns away or pushes the food out of sight. Other times, he’ll take the food from Larisa’s hand, start to eat it before giving it back to his mother or spitting it out.

His grandfather, Larisa’s father, Anatoliy Martynenko, is his primary home care provider and his primary feeder so every day at 9 a.m., 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. he feeds Brandon pre-cut or soft foods.

Sometimes, the meals last 15 minutes long, or longer if Brandon is being difficult.

Other times, the meals can last an hour, since it is paired with therapy.

“He needs constant manipulation, stipulation to get food in,” she said.

Originally from Crimea, Larisa moved to Williamsburg in 2004. She is currently disabled and has problems with her back.

Before her health issues, she worked for Ferguson — she has her bachelor’s degree in architecture and interior design. 

Both her and Brandon moved in with Larisa’s parents.

She enrolled Brandon in pre-k at Williamsburg-James City County schools before their school district changed to York County.

It was a constant struggle for the Turkatte family, pulling Brandon out of school because he would become underweight and enrolling him back in school multiple times.

“After two years, he started declining,” Larisa said.

In February 2018, she started homeschooling Brandon a couple of times a week and would take him to feeding therapy.

After a few months, she enrolled him back in traditional school and in September 2018, she pulled him out after he started losing weight and homeschooled him.

In January 2019, Larisa continued to homeschool Brandon.

Once she found out the York County School Division could provide home-based education for disabled students, she enrolled later this year.

Home-based education is where a student with a doctor’s recommendation can receive public school education at home. The parents need to prove the child cannot function in a traditional school environment and for Brandon, who needs to eat three times a day at certain times, it was just not plausible for him to be in a classroom setting at this time.

On April 15, Brandon’s Individualized Education Plan team proposed Brandon receive educational services at home for a total of 20 hours over the course of the summer from June 17 to Aug. 30, Larisa said.

The services with the home-bound teacher, Gina Rondinelli, did not start until mid-July and she only provided five and a half hours of teaching services to Brandon, Larisa said.

“She never made a fixed schedule,” Larisa said. “Out of 20, she only showed up five-and-a-half. The school says if she stays the 30 minutes, she gets full hour of credit.”

Now Larisa is fighting with the York County School Division to get the hours she said is owed to her son.

“Most parents fail,” she said. “I’m not dealing with one person –– I’m dealing with an entire system.”

One session consisted of an introduction with no teaching and another session lasted a half hour since Brandon was too difficult to work with, Larisa said.

In an Aug. 7 text message to Larisa, Rondinelli said she could no longer provide educational services to Brandon.

“Actually today isn’t going to work. I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to finish Brandon’s HB. I do apologize. My daughter had emergency surgery,” she wrote to Larisa.

This isn’t the first time Rondinelli has scheduled and canceled Brandon’s home-bound sessions.

Other text messages to Larisa show Rondinelli canceled other visits with Brandon for migraines, a broken air conditioner, a family emergency, a funeral and a workshop, Larisa said.

Larisa said she called the school about the missing education hours for Brandon and the next day, she emailed Elaine Gould, director of student services, informing her about the situation and asking for all 20 of Brandon’s education services hours to be reimbursed by the school division.

She said she also told Gould that on July 19, Rondinelli failed to come inside the house, knowing the family was home.

In a text message, Rondinelli told Larisa she rang the door bell three times, texted and called Larisa, and waited outside for 15 minutes.

Gould responded to Larisa’s email on Aug. 13 and noted the school division did receive the time sheets regarding Brandon’s education.

“According to timesheets submitted and signed by both Ms. Rondinelli and you, the teacher has provided 14 out of 20 hours of ESY services,” Gould wrote. “Ms. DeVaughn will contact the teacher to either refute or verify your statements below; however, I do have the timesheets as documentation of service.”

Gould added Rondinelli is entitled to one hour of pay and indicated that on the timesheet.

“This session is considered “cancelled” by the parent as Ms. Rondinelli came to your residence to provide services but the child was not made available to her,” Gould wrote.

Larisa asked to see the timesheets, she said Gould refused.

“I will not provide the time sheet submitted by the homebound teacher,” she wrote. “I will check with YCSD’s attorney to determine if I can share the page that you signed which indicates you confirmed 15 hours of homebound service.”

On Aug. 19, Gould sent the timesheets to Larisa, according to email records.

“I had to ensure that I was not sending this information inappropriately,” she wrote.

On Aug. 21, Larisa sent Gould a rebuttal, pointing out the hours which were unaccounted for on the timesheet or mislabeled, as well as noting the signature on the timesheet was her father’s and not hers, the legal parental guardian of Brandon.

According to the York County School Division timesheet logs, Rondinelli indicated she provided two hours of educational service to Brandon on July 25. However, in her text messages to Larisa on July 25, she never visited Brandon that day and rescheduled the appointment for a later date because her daughter was locked out of her car.

“I just want my son to get what belongs to him –– what she took from him,” Larisa said.

She continued to email Gould who did not respond until Sept. 28.

Larisa filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Education and the Department of Special Education in Washington, D.C.

“I know one thing,” Larisa said. “He can learn and the school owes that to him.”

Editor’s note: The second part of this series with the York County School Division’s response to the allegations will go online Dec. 10.

Julia Marsiglianohttp://wydaily.com
Julia Marsigliano is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She covers everything on the Peninsula from local government and law enforcement agencies to family-run businesses and weather updates. Before WYDaily, she covered Hampton and Newport News for WYDaily’s sister publication, HNNDaily before both publications merged in December 2018. Julia was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to Long Island, New York in 2001. A true New Yorker, she loves pizza, bagels and good Chinese food. Send comments, tips and other tidbits to julia@localvoicemedia.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @jmarsigliano

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