Pensacola, Florida
Friday April 20th 2018

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Snoezelen Center Changes Challenged

By Duwayne Escobedo

He’s one tough-nut.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Lacey A. Collier treats the courtroom like he handled the Vietnam battlefield. A battle-scarred veteran, the decorated U.S. Navy fighter pilot flew 140 combat missions.

The 82-year-old continues to relish the thrill of competition. The tougher the challenge, the better for Collier. But little known is the soft spot Collier developed for severely disabled children. He chokes up, and his eyes glisten with tears when talking about them. For 22 years, they have enriched his life.

When no one believed a Snoezelen sensory center could be built in Pensacola, Collier stepped forward. The judge admitted he ignored scuba diving buddy, Joe Denmon’s, invitation for two years to visit Westgate. Once he did in 1995, he fell in love with these vulnerable children. That’s why in 2003, he eagerly shouldered leading the Snoezelen charge and told then-Escambia Westgate school principal Susan Berry “dare to dream.”

His passion for the disabled children spurred him to deliver the Lacey A. Collier Sensory Complex. Partnering with the Escambia Board of County Commissioners and Escambia County School District School Board, the 11,000-square-foot, $2.7-million sensory facility came to fruition in 2005.

It features four rooms: The Jungle Room, The Space Room, The Magic Room and The Polar Room. The concept of employing colors, lights, textures and music to help those with disabilities was developed in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago. The center helps treat children with mild to severe autism, Down Syndrome and other extreme disabilities. A vast majority of Westgate students are unable to express emotions, form relationships, or speak. Additionally, most process verbal communications literally and have severe or profound mental retardation.

Collier’s more than 150 tours, which he ended in May 2017, included community leaders, renowned educators, dignitaries and others from 29 countries, seven continents and nearly all 50 states. That combined with real gains made by the students helped to elevate the school and its sensory complex to world-class status.

Collier insisted in an exclusive interview with Inweekly, “I never asked for a nickel ever.” But the Westgate/Snoezelen Foundation raised more than $1.2 million in donations to maintain the sensory center between 2003 and 2017. Many times, both Collier and Denmon reached into their own pockets to fund upkeep.

Stepping Down
But in a four-page letter last September, Collier announced he would step down after a more than 22-year “labor of love” with Westgate.

He addressed it to District 5 Escambia County School Board member Bill Slayton and copied the rest of the board members and Norm Ross, Assistant Superintendent of schools. In the letter, Collier accused the Westgate staff of evicting him and Denmon without any discussion. He said Westgate officials had no idea how to operate Snoezelen. He questioned their appreciation of the complex they “are blessed to have.” He reported after meeting with the school system administration that Superintendent Malcolm Thomas showed zero concern about the facility’s future.

“I have no confidence in the ability of those who have taken over to maintain the pristine condition and world-class reputation of the facility,” Collier wrote.

In an interview in his second-floor office downtown, Collier held back tears at the thought of the students failing to benefit from the Snoezelen complex. He said with emotion: “Mainstreaming them is the biggest joke in the world.”

Collier added: “There’s not another school like Westgate in Northwest Florida. It’s a teaching tool. It’s not Disney World. It’s not a playground.”

Denmon, who worked hand-in-hand with Collier, also expressed sadness about leaving Westgate. The behavioral technician retired in August after he was moved out of his office unexpectedly. It was the last straw for the 24-year U.S. Air Force veteran after being belittled, having tours he set up changed without notice and other harassment from principals Terry Coburn and Jobenna Sellers.

“I don’t take kindly to bullying,” Denmon said. “I put my heart into the school. I feel — and I’m not saying this selfishly — that I had an influence and made a difference in the students’ lives. I’m learning to live with not being there. But it’s still very important to me.”

Denmon was responsible for scheduling students in the sensory rooms and did all maintenance and repairs. He started the well-known Mardi Gras parade at Westgate that has steadily grown in numbers and reputation. Collier said, “Joe is magic with those kids.”

Denmon said he fears the Snoezelen Center will become rundown and treated like a playground. His worst nightmare?

“They have to do things right and not turn it into a storage shed,” Denmon said.

Snoezelen Still Used
Despite Collier’s and Denmon’s hard and still raw feelings, others feel differently, such as Bill Greenhut. A Westgate/Snoezelen Foundation board member and Greenhut Construction Company CEO said he expects strong ties to continue with Westgate and the Snoezelen center.

“I know you have spoken to Judge Collier and Joe about their disappointment with the previous principals, but my personal opinion is that Jobenna Sellers, the current principal, embraces Snoezelen’s benefits and will work with our foundation in a positive way,” he said.

The Inweekly spoke with Sellers at Westgate recently to ask her questions about Collier’s and Denmon’s controversial departure and the condition of the Snoezelen Complex.

The principal led the Inweekly reporter on a tour through each of the four sensory rooms that make up the Snoezelen Complex. She said that the school, which includes a dozen new teachers this school year, had extensive training on its operation over the summer. Sellers, who has 21 years of experience in special education, blamed retirements on so much turnover at Westgate.

Sellers admitted the roughly 200 students at the school use the facility much more than last year. In fact, students can be found there every day starting at 9:30 a.m. as part of their curriculum and to help calm them down, if they get agitated.

“It’s not a museum,” Sellers said. “It’s amazing what it does for children. It gives them the mental stimulation they need.”

Sellers introduced Billy Nolan, a teacher’s assistant, who now handles all Snoezelen repairs and happily reported, “everything is in working condition.”

Walking the hallways, students seemed happy, with some jumping up and down and clapping. Others prepared for a performance on a stage in the cafeteria. They pounded on bongo drums while teachers helped some students wave their arms in the air as Chuck Berry’s “The Twist” blared.

Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas denied the accusations leveled by Collier and Denmon “as totally false.” He told the Inweekly in a phone interview, “If I had known what questions you were going to ask, I probably would not have called you back.”

Thomas confirmed he met with Collier and thanked him for the foundation’s support. He said the school system was committed to keeping Snoezelen in good shape. He said he asked Collier to continue to serve on the foundation board and said he was welcome still to lead his popular tours.

But the three-term superintendent told Inweekly he backed Principal Seller’s decisions, including moving Denmon to a new office. He said no position exists currently for Denmon to return to the school. Thomas said after retirement employees are prohibited from working for the school district again for 12 months.

“I did come down on the side of the principal,” Thomas said. “She’s in charge of the people and can direct their work. We are in as good of shape now as we were last year.”

Thomas denied being jealous of Collier’s and Denmon’s many achievements and success at Snoezelen.

“Somehow (Collier’s) feelings got hurt,” Thomas said. “I understand that. I’ve tried to make it right. Obviously, I never will make it right.”

Mixed Reactions
Meanwhile, parents of students at Westgate have mixed reactions about the performance of the school.

Dustin Huffman’s 14-year-old son, Stephen, has attended the school since 2011. He remains non-verbal and still wears a diaper. Although his son looks forward to the school day, Huffman admits noticing changes at Westgate for the worse.

“I would give it a 10 up until a few years ago,” said Huffman, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. “There seems to be too much change over in personnel. Routine and structure for these kids are pretty important.”

Howard Reddy’s 9-year-old son, Andrew, has profound sensory issues from his autism. He has attended the school for five years.

Reddy, Vice President for University of West Florida Advancement, admits to being a fan of Westgate, its teachers and its Snoezelen Complex.

“We are very lucky in Pensacola to have this in our backyard,” Reddy said. “It says a lot about this community to support it and provide funding to make (Snoezelen) available to students.”

Meanwhile, Collier treasures two things the most—being involved in helping the Snoezelen Complex develop a reputation for being among the best in the world and earning the much-coveted Wings of Gold as a fighter pilot.

“Focusing on this may ensure it does not go the way I’m afraid I expect it to,” Collier said. “I hope I’m wrong. Maybe they will come to their senses.”