Clear Creek ISD’s special education students are restrained too often, and the district could increase communication with parents and training among staff, but the program is also doing a lot right, according to a consultant’s audit.
A recent report from a monthslong audit of CCISD’s special education program shows the district has many strengths and several areas needing improvement.
The district hired Gibson Consulting Group in August after several parents complained and protested against the district, claiming special education students are abused and the district spends taxpayer dollars fighting parents in due-process hearings.
Gibson in early March unveiled its report, including 27 recommendations to improve CCISD’s special education program in addition to data comparing the district to other similar districts and state and national averages.
“[Gibson] asked a lot of tough questions, and we’re thankful for that,” Superintendent Greg Smith said. “We think it’s a fair review.”
One of the parents’ complaints was the district restrains and secludes students in timeout rooms. Some parents have complained their children have even been hurt by teachers restraining them.
Restraint is direct physical contact from an adult that restricts a student’s movement. Gibson’s investigation showed CCISD restrains special-needs students more than it should and should adhere to district policy and train staff to decrease the use of restraint, according to the report.
“There is an overreliance on the use of restraints to manage inappropriate behaviors on some campuses,” the report reads.
According to district data, the number of restraint incidents, which policy states should happen only in an emergency, has fluctuated over the past several school years. During the 2016-17 school year, 737 cases were reported, and 367 incidents were reported the 2017-18 school year.
The use of restraint varies by campus as well. Ferguson Elementary School averaged 135 restraints a year since 2013, but Ward Elementary School reported none. Ward has three social development classes, which are designed for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and Ferguson has two, according to the report.
Steven Ebell, deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said more students as young as kindergarteners acting out. Restraint is used as a last resort, he said.
“That’s really the last place we want to be,” he said. “We want to really help a student with their own self-regulation and teach them skills to do that.”
Recent behavior management technique training has led to a decrease in restraint use, Ebell said.
“It’s our job as teachers to share our calm and not necessarily join in their chaos,” he said. “That’s what we train with now.”
Gibson noted the district does not document or track the use of time-outs and recommended the district do so.
The district last summer removed the doors on time-out rooms and became more judicious in sending students to time-out, Ebell said.
“We’re not allowed to isolate students,” he said.
The district likes Gibson’s recommendation to document time-outs because it will allow the district to compare campuses and support schools that use time-outs often. The district will soon hire behavior support-related positions to implement restraint- and time-out-related recommendations, Ebell said.
Some recommendations would improve students’ individualized education programs, which are tailored plans for special-needs students’ education. Some parents have voiced concerns IEPs are not followed or they are blindsided by news their child is changing campus at IEP meetings.
Other recommendations include increasing training for general education and special education teachers and increasing communication between the district and special education parents, especially when it comes to IEPs.
“I always think we can communicate better with parents,” Ebell said. “We’re working on improving all aspects of communication.”
Trustee Laura DuPont said many of Gibson’s recommendations are things the district has already been working on to improve the program.
“That’s the way it should be, right? Where everything’s working together,” she said.
It will take some time, but the district plans to implement all of Gibson’s 27 recommendations, Ebell said.
“The ball’s in our court now,” Smith said.
Gibson’s report included data that showed the district’s special education program has several strengths.
Since 2015, more special education students are being taught in general education settings, and fewer are being taught in seclusionary settings. In the 2014-15 school year, a higher percentage of special education students was taught in seclusionary settings over general education classrooms, but the percentages flipped in the 2015-16 school year, and the gap has widened since, according to the report.
Gibson’s Project Director Keri Munkwitz said this positive trend is partly why student performance is increasing districtwide. Ebell said this is a result of a deliberate effort on the district’s part.
“The more restrictive a learning environment becomes [the more]students struggle to achieve,” he said.
Another positive is CCISD employs an appropriate ratio of teachers to students and paraprofessionals. CCISD employs one teacher for every 11.2 special education student, which is well below the state average of 15.3 and falls in the middle when compared to seven other similar districts, according to the report.
CCISD employs about 16 percent more special education teachers than paraprofessionals. When money is tight, many districts employ more paraprofessionals than special education teachers, which can sometimes limit special-needs students’ growth and education, Munkwitz said.
Compared to similar districts, CCISD spends the second-least amount per special education student despite being at the average for student-teacher ratios, which the report indicates is a sign of efficient non-teacher spending.
Board President Page Rander said the report overall showed the district is doing a lot right.
“I think that both for the board and for the administration, we were pleased with many of the findings that kind of validated pretty much we knew to be true of the program,” she said.
Parents of special education students believe the Gibson audit is a good start but that more can be done.
“[Gibson] cracked the door open on a lot of these special education issues. It’s a start,” said Jane Kline, a parent of a special-needs student she pulled from CCISD after several issues.
“But I think … some of these issues were glossed over. It’s not the full story, so to speak,” she said.
Parents originally requested a full investigation of past alleged infractions, but the audit did not go into that level of detail, Kline said. Gibson did speak to parents about their past problems with CCISD’s special education program as part of the audit.
Kline said parents feel the data Gibson used was incomplete because it did not include the students whose parents pulled from the district.
“We think the whole data set Gibson used is skewed because a lot of families were forced out the district,” she said. “If those kids aren’t included in the data set, then the numbers are just wrong.”
The report does not include information on how many hours special education students spent in time-out and should have been explored more, Kline said. Some students were put in time-out as punishment, she said.
“Kids were repeatedly put in time out,” Kline said. “You’re not supposed to put disabled kids in time-out rooms as a discipline measure.”
Kline noticed five of Gibson’s 27 recommendations include increasing training and development for teachers and paraprofessionals.
“That’s what we’ve been saying since we started this reform movement,” she said. “That’s been our thing since day one.”
Finally, some parents question the validity of the district being audited by a company the district is paying.
“For me personally, it’s hard to think of this as a totally objective report when the people paying for it are the people being evaluated,” Kline said.
Rander said Gibson is an independent third party that has a wealth of experience conducting similar audits for other districts.
“They asked for way more data than we expected, which leads me to know they did a thorough review,” she said. “They went above and beyond our expectations.”
Special education parents plan to get together to discuss the report and form a response to it and CCISD, Kline said. The district’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee will continue to meet with district leaders to come up with ways to improve the district’s special education program.
Ebell said the administration will soon present to the board its plan to implement Gibson’s recommendations.