Nassau County rejects NCC plan to cut programs for students with autism

MINEOLA, Long Island (WABC) -- The Nassau County Legislature intervened Wednesday to save two beloved programs benefiting students with Autism Spectrum Disorder at Nassau Community College.

By examining the NCC's proposed budget for the 2020-2021 school year, 7 On Your Side Investigates found the college was planning to cut the ASPIRES and Achilles programs while adding to the college's financial reserves.

The County Legislature votes to approve NCC's yearly budget, and Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello said the county does not approve of the budget as proposed.

He called it unacceptable for the college to save money by cutting a program designed to help students with disabilities.

"We don't insert ourselves in college activities, programming, and things like that," he said. "We just vote on the budget. But when something like this happens, we really need to have our voices heard. The fact that they are eliminating the program is completely contrary to what they are supposed to be doing."

In a letter Wednesday, Nicolello informed NCC President Jermaine Williams the county would not be approving the proposed 2020-2021 budget.

"We have been informed that Nassau Community College will discontinue the Achilles and ASPIRES Programs for the 2020-2021 academic school year," Nicolello wrote. "I write you today to inform you that the majority delegation to the Nassau County Legislature will not vote to approve the Nassau Community College Budget until such programs are fully restored. Eliminating these worthy programs would undermine the core mission of Nassau Community College and would diminish the educational opportunities for current and futures students with ASD... Increasing the reserves while cutting programs for those with disabilities is a policy we will not support. I urge you to restore the funding to these programs for the upcoming academic school year and beyond. Without such action, I do not see a path forward for the approval of the proposed Nassau Community College Budget this year."

7 On Your Side Investigates has been covering the concerns of parents, students and program coordinators who say the Achilles and ASPIRES programs have been life-changing for the students involved.

The programs help students with every aspect of college life from executive functioning to social skills.

Many students who struggled before joining the programs have gone on to pursue Masters Programs and PhD's and credit ASPIRES and Achilles for making that possible.

"It works," said Valerie Lagakis, coordinator of the Achilles program. "We are passionate about it, and I like to boast that there is no other program like this in the country. This is a human right, education for this group of students just like anyone else. They are entitled to an education in a dignified way."

Lagakis and her colleague, Frances Viscovich, who coordinates ASPIRES, expressed immense gratitude to the County Legislature for joining their fight to save these programs.

"Wow, this is fantastic," Viscovich said. "I am so grateful to the county government for doing this, for understanding the value of this. This is amazing."

Nassau Community College did not respond to requests for comment.

In a past statement to 7 On Your Side Investigates, a spokesperson wrote, "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."

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