Nassau Community College to cut program helping students with autism

GARDEN CITY, Nassau County (WABC) -- Plans to cancel a beloved program designed to help students with Autism Spectrum Disorder succeed both socially and academically is prompting outrage from students who rely on it, their parents, and teachers who coordinate it.

In late April, the interim Vice President of Nassau Community College wrote the coordinators for two programs, known as Achilles and Aspires, designed to help students with varying degrees of Autism to inform them that the programs would not continue in the 2020-2021 academic school year.

"Please do not make or continue to make any plans to recruit new students going forward. The Achilles and Aspires programs will continue through the conclusion of this semester," read the letter from interim Vice President Valerie Collins. "The decision to end the programs this semester was, of course, influenced by financial concerns."

Frances Viscovich, an NCC professor who coordinates the Aspires program, said she offered to volunteer her time and identified other individuals at the school who could help run the program without creating additional costs for the university.

"We can find other options. I have given them other options," Viscovich said. "I feel like they are turning their backs on them."

The Aspires Program provides comprehensive support to students with ASD in weekly one-on-one and group counseling sessions, and programming designed to address executive functioning and social skill deficits.

"It's helped me branch out more socially. I used to be very reserved and I used to avoid talking with people and I feel like I've improved in that a whole lot," said Lucas Librie, a liberal arts student. "I went to a different college before Nassau and I did terribly."

Now Librie isn't just passing classes, he is excelling in them.

"I feel like cutting the program is a big mistake not just for those who are currently attending but for those with Autism who are looking to attend the school in the future," Librie said.

"I understand the economic policies going into this, but the Aspires Program is a great opportunity for many people with Autism to have a balanced life," said Joseph Randazzo, a graphic design student.

"I don't know if I will do well in college if I don't have the program," added Jimmy Kelly, a computer science student.

Jane Brown, an expert on disability services with the College Autism Spectrum, an organization that assists students with ASD, said programs, like Aspire, drastically increase the number of students who attend college, graduate, and go on to find jobs.

A College spokesperson addressed questions from 7 On Your Side Investigates about the decision to cancel in the program in a statement.

"Nassau Community College is focused on providing all of our students with the support they need to complete their academics at the College. After careful consideration, students in the ASPIRES program have been transitioned from the formal program to now receive individual campus services in our Student Personnel Services area and our Center for Students with Disabilities. While we appreciate the offer of a member of our staff to voluntarily run the program contractually we were not permitted to do so. It is of the utmost importance to the College that the students in the former ASPIRES program have access to the tools they need to succeed in their academic journey and as such we are developing additional student support to assist the ASPIRES students through this transition," wrote NCC Director, Marketing & Communications Lindsey Angioletti.

Students and parents argue the services available at the Center for Students with Disabilities nowhere compare to the hands-on approach of the Aspires Program.

"Those people are overworked because he emails them and he doesn't get an answer, and then he emails them again," said Linda Guilmette, Lucas' aunt. "They need guidance and it's not to say he doesn't have a lovely guidance counselor, but she's overworked."

"You know our world and our country have moved in a direction of tolerance and acceptance and for Nassau to cut the program is discriminatory," said Vanessa Kelly, Jimmy's mom. "They gave them this opportunity and now they are taking it away."

A report examining California's Community College System during the last recession found programs like this one servings students with disabilities were among those most likely to face cuts.

"To single out programs for special needs students for program cuts, can create disparate treatment for a protected group of student," wrote Susanne Marie Bruyere, academic director at the Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, upon hearing from 7 On Your Side Investigates that NCC planned to cut both the Aspires and Achilles Programs.

New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Beach, is also calling on NCC to rethink its position and find other areas for cost savings.

"We can't have some of the more vulnerable people in our society be the first ones that get harmed by this," Kaminsky said. "This is something that should be last on the chopping block. We have to do better."
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