Parents, teachers highlight flaws in Frederick County's special education program
Frederick News-Post - 10/22/2017
Oct. 22--After paying nearly $30,000 trying to get services for her children, Michelle Myers decided to take them out of Frederick County Public Schools.
Myers said she had so many issues trying to obtain services for her two children, who both have autism, that she was forced to seek non-public placement for both of her children at Kennedy Krieger Institute -- a nonprofit that provides medical care and school-based services for kids with learning disabilities -- in Baltimore and Rockville.
Myers said she spent $16,000 on occupational and speech therapy for her children, which she says they should have gotten in schools. She spent an additional $10,000 to hire a lawyer to fight for non-public placement for her children.
Myers is one of more than 30 parents and special education teachers in Frederick County to contact The Frederick News-Post regarding the problems they have encountered in FCPS' special education department. Many of these parents and teachers spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the school system.
Several families shared stories similar to Myers' fight for services, but none to the extent that they actually pulled their children from the school system. But their issues revealed a concern that many parents and teachers, and at least two Board of Education members, said might be systemic issues.
"I think it's troubling and telling that so many people feel more comfortable talking to a journalist than the school system," said board Vice President Liz Barrett, who has a child who receives special education services in FCPS. "I think it means it's time for the system and board to officially acknowledge system failures and make sure every action supports children whose parents ask for help."
Parents and teachers reported issues with falsified individualized education plans (IEP), services being pulled from special education students, and stonewalling from the FCPS central office when requesting resources and services.
Issues with IEPs
Every student receiving special education services must have an IEP. An IEP is a legally binding document that outlines a child's special education needs and services. It also states how a student's growth and progress will be measured, using data provided by teachers completing the IEP.
Of the 32 parents and teachers interviewed by The News-Post, 17 said they had either witnessed a falsified IEP, or said the services guaranteed to them in the IEP were not being provided.
"It's different at every school, which it shouldn't be, but it is," one special education teacher said. "But it's certainly not unheard of for an employee to sign off on meeting notes for a meeting they didn't attend, or falsely indicate that an IEP meeting took place in a timely manner."
FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban said she could not comment on specific cases of falsified IEPs, or if any teachers or administrators had been reprimanded for falsifying IEPs.
"If you have very few instances of that, you risk" identifying a person who was punished, Alban said.
However, Alban did say parents doubted that their child was receiving the necessary services, the school system would complete an investigation to determine if the parent's concerns had merit.
In a special education update FCPS released and presented at the Sept. 27Board of Education meeting, the school system released a chart that pointed out several imperfections in the IEP process.
Of 400 audited IEPs, only 77 percent included current data. Even less -- 64 percent -- included "high-quality, standards-based" goals, meaning 36 percent of the students with those IEPs did not have an IEP that set them up to meet the standards for graduation.
Alban admitted this was an issue the special education department is prioritizing to develop a fix. Standards for graduation, namely Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test score requirements, are only set to increase, which makes the need for IEPs with standards-based goals more important.
Nearly every parent interviewed by The News-Post also expressed concerns with the goals and data provided to measure those goals on their child's IEP.
"I often have trouble getting data for the goals that are on my child's IEP," one parent said. "Which is troubling because there's no other way to tell if it's working."
Twelve parents reported feeling "bullied" or "intimidated" by school staff in the IEP meeting. IEP meetings are held at least once a year and include a "team" that attends the meeting, which is made up of teachers, therapists, parents, school administrators, and anyone else who is invited.
Because IEP meetings are federally mandated, the meeting can feel more formal than perhaps it should, Alban said.
Myers said when she went in for IEP meetings, she felt like the decisions had already been made for her.
"The FCPS system is designed in a fashion that the team at the IEP meeting knows what they are going to say to you," Myers said. "The decision is made before you as a parent enter the room. They throw unrealistic timetables at you, and you are forced into a meeting due to deadlines. You are so overwhelmed, you need an advocate or a lawyer. They make you promises that never really happen."
Some parents have resorted to finding an advocate such as Shawna Capotosto to sit in on IEP meetings and fight for services.
Capotosto has files from 780 IEP meetings in which she has served as an advocate in the last four years. Capotosto has two children in special education, and the problems she had finding services inspired her to help other parents.
"I would love for there to be a system where I'm not needed," Capotosto said. "But until parents have to stop fighting every inch of the way, I'm more than happy to help these parents. Because these kids deserve help."
Other parents reported that the school system often undermines the services that are guaranteed in the student's IEP.
Three parents said their child had an IEP that stated the student needed a special education instructional assistant, or SEIA, but that the assistant was later seen as unnecessary by a central office employee. Central office employees visited for observation periods and as a result of their findings decided the student did not need an assistant.
One parent said her child was making strides and showing growth with his assistant, until the school system decided he no longer needed the help.
"How is it that a central office employee could come observe my kid for 43 minutes and know that he doesn't need an SEIA when the entire IEP team decided he needed one?" the parent asked.
Several special education teachers confirmed to The News-Post that instructional assistants have been taken off a student's case after a central office employee visited for observation.
Central office employees "are almost never in a special education classroom," one special education teacher said. "We're just as happy to not have them there, because when they come, chances are they'll make an uninformed decision that will have a huge impact on a student."
Teachers fight for help
Special education teachers expressed concerns with tracking and developing the data that parents request because of the amount of time involved. But every teacher interviewed expressed the need for data on an IEP.
"Without data, how else are we supposed to know it's working?" one teacher said. "But there's just no time to do it, and we don't get any support from central office to come up with that data. If they want us to provide the data so bad, they need to provide it for us."
Several other teachers said they have had issues getting resources and help from central office -- in particular with the recent spike in requests for services for students with dyslexia.
Six teachers said they have made requests for more training and resources, and have been given "non-replies" from central office. One teacher went as far as stating that she has resorted to paying her own way through professional development opportunities and training sessions.
"I feel more unprepared and untrained than I have ever felt," one veteran special education teacher said.
That teacher expressed concerns with her workload, saying there is rarely time to meet all of her students' needs. The school system recently transitioned to a "case load" model for special education, where each teacher has a specific number of students he or she is responsible for.
Each of those students has an IEP that designates specific service hours that the student is supposed to receive. Two teachers admitted, however, that not all students receive those hours, largely because there is not enough time to fill those requirements.
"You can just look at the math and know there's no way these kids can get the services they need," one veteran teacher said.
When asked for a response to that statement, Alban said that service hours are meant to be performed by several staff members at a specific school, and can often be done in group sessions as well.
One teacher said that, in her experience, general education teachers don't often help to fulfill those service hours because that would pull them away from their students.
"There are times that we're just not able to meet all of these hours," one teacher said. "And we try to rely on help, but the other teachers are so busy that they can't always help either. And then we have to figure out if we can meet the goals in less hours."
Two veteran special education teachers expressed concerns about teacher morale in the system.
One special education teacher said a fellow teacher at another school contacted her via Twitter for some advice because that teacher wasn't getting help anywhere else.
"She said she felt like there was nowhere else to turn," the teacher said. "They can and will go somewhere else. We're going to lose a lot of really talented people if we don't change things."
A systemic concern?
Thirty-two parents and teachers hardly offer a full picture of a system that has more than 4,000 special education students.
But the majority of the 32 parents and teachers interviewed feel the FCPS special education department has a systemic issue that is failing its students.
When asked if she felt FCPS had a systemic issue or failure, Alban adamantly said it did not.
"Anytime you have such a large school system, you are always going to have people who are unhappy," Alban said. "However, no school system is perfect, and we realize there are things we can improve on. But I don't think we have a systemic issue or failure in our special education department."
The Frederick News-Post asked the same question to each member of the Board of Education. Four offered responses and were split on their feelings about the system.
Board President Brad Young and member Joy Schaefer denied the premise that the system was failing students, while member Colleen Cusimano joined Barrett in saying she thought there was a systemic failure.
"I think our special education department does an outstanding job," Young said. "There will always be parents with concerns, and the concern for the board is always to get the problem corrected. But I see this as a small part of the more than 4,000 students in our special education system."
Cusimano is the board's liaison on the Special Education Citizen Advisory Committee, and said she has been hearing these concerns for years -- and they have only grown.
"I think it's undeniable at this point," Cusimano said. "It's not just at one school. We're hearing these concerns at every school. I'd like some assurances that we are moving in the right direction, and I haven't gotten them."
Despite not seeing these concerns as systemic, both Young and Schaefer are worried about the number of people who wanted to remain anonymous in their criticisms of the school system.
"That's certainly concerning to hear as a board member, because we as a board want to hear from people," Schaefer said. "We encourage the community to come address us with their concerns because we want to make sure every student feels comfortable and has what he or she needs."
Follow Allen Etzler on Twitter: @AllenWEtzler.
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