With an audit in the works, that change may be just around the corner.
Members of the group, known on Facebook as Parents for CCISD Special Education Reform, have claimed in press releases and interviews that the district’s special education students are abused, pushed out of special education programs and not adequately taken care of, among other problems.
District officials denied the claims while admitting the district’s special education programs are not perfect and have room for improvement. In response to parents’ concerns the CCISD board of trustees this summer approved hiring an independent consultant that is now auditing the district’s special education programs.
Parents said they are not raising concerns to attack the district but to try to give special-needs students the best education and care possible. They and district officials both hope the audit results in positive changes to the district’s special education programs.
“As a community if we do not correct the issues that are happening, it really trickles down to impact this community,” group member Amparo Chacon said.
In a press release the group said the district is guilty of “physical abuse, emotional abuse, solitary confinement, child restraint” and more.
District officials denied the “unfounded” claims.
“It’s not true. It’s just not true,” Executive Director of Communications Elaina Polsen said. “If any one of those allegations were true I don’t think we’d be here today.”
However, district officials admitted staff does not always act perfectly. The administration corrects mistakes swiftly, but there is no abuse, CCISD General Counsel Leila Sarmecanic said.
“Mistakes happen,” she said. “We do everything we can to not just comply with the law but [to] do what’s right for students.”
Parents of special education students meet annually with school staff to develop a plan for the future education of their children. Group members said these plans are sometimes put together without parental involvement, leaving them uninformed as to their child’s education and feeling as if they are being pressured to accept plans they do not fully understand.
At a planning meeting for group member Marta Brain’s son’s education, Brain was told her child would be going to a new campus. She was blindsided by the news and the fact that he had changed teachers throughout the school years without her knowledge, she said.
The constant changes affected Brain’s son enough that he started behaving erratically. Brain later pulled him out of CCISD, she said.
Cynthia Short, executive director of special services, said it is practice, not policy, for staff to communicate these plans to parents in advance, especially if they involve big changes such as switching schools or being dismissed from special education programs.
When parents and staff fail to come to an agreement about these plans, parents sometimes file for a due process hearing through the Texas Education Agency. A hearing officer acts as a judge and, after hearing both sides, rules on the case, Short said.
Since 2013, CCISD has spent over $900,000 on legal fees on special education-related cases, including due process hearings, according to CCISD data. Group members think the district should not be spending so much fighting parents.
“We have the largest school district in Galveston County, so naturally our costs are going to be higher,” Polsen said. “In general we want to mitigate and come to an agreement as early as possible.”
Another group member, Jane Kline, has an adopted special-needs son she has since pulled from CCISD to attend a private school out of state. CCISD staff often did not follow plans for her child’s education, Kline said.
“That would create [a] kind of chaos at home because he would come home without the agreed-upon information that the school was supposed to be providing to me on assignments and homework and whatnot,” she said.
Kline said a school staff member physically threatened her son and that staff told him he was partially to blame for his lack of social skills.
“His self-worth and his beliefs and his abilities plummeted during the school year,” she said.
Not every parent of special-needs students sees problems with CCISD’s special education programs. The district has over 4,000 special-needs students, and the group complaining makes up only a small percentage of parents, Polsen said.
Anne Bernay, founder of the CCISD Special Education Parent Teacher Association, said the majority of parents of special-needs students have no problem with CCISD’s special education programs.
“There are an awful lot of families in the district who are having a good experience, and it’s unfortunate it’s become so divisive,” she said. “I feel like the district is trying very hard. I feel if we work together we can make a lot of improvements. ...”
SPECIAL EDUCATION AUDIT
The district disagrees with the group’s claims but has not ignored its complaints. The audit the board approved is a result of the group’s efforts, Polsen said.
“Anytime a parent has a concern or complaint, they shouldn’t be dismissed,” she said.
Austin-based firm Gibson Consulting is in the middle of auditing the district’s special education programs. The firm has requested data, interviewed teachers, met with parents and more in its efforts to assess the strengths and weaknesses of CCISD’s special education programs, Polsen said.
Concerned parents do not believe the audit goes far enough. They would like an investigation of past possible infractions, not just an assessment of how the district’s special education programs operate today, group members said.
“It is a beginning,” Chacon said. “That’s something we have to realize.”
Polsen said the audit is not necessarily limited to how special education programs currently function. Part of the audit included hearing concerns and past experiences from parents.
District officials expect Gibson’s final report in March. The district will soon form a committee of parents of special-needs students who will meet with the superintendent to assess the district’s progress at implementing improvements, Polsen said.
“We look forward to seeing those results,” she said.