Numerous violations of federal special education laws in Washington, including in Spokane and Central Valley schools, will prompt changes in the way the state monitors the schooling of disabled youths.
Parents hope a federal report on the violations will lead to more involvement by them in decisions about their disabled children.
The upcoming changes in state rules will emphasize that disabled children belong in regular classrooms as much as possible.
Federal monitors found 27 areas where the state has failed to ensure that school districts are complying with the law.
Violations detailed in the 57-page report are not news to parents who have been fighting Spokane School District 81, trying to get services for their children, said Lisa Giddings of Schools Are For Everyone, a Spokane parents group.
“There is an underlying feeling (in the district) that children with special needs don’t belong in the mainstream of society,” Giddings said.
Giddings’ 7-year-old daughter has normal intelligence but has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. The girl is in a regular classroom at Mullan Road Elementary School, but she spent most of this school year without an instructional aide to help her. She now has an aide one hour a day, but Giddings wants more aide time for her daughter and is ready to go to court, if necessary, to get it.
Parents often meet roadblocks when they request special accommodations in regular classrooms, Giddings said.
Findings in the U.S. Department of Education report include:
Placement decisions for special education students are made without parental involvement.
The law requires decisions to be made during a meeting open to parents. But teachers and administrators, including some in Spokane, told federal monitors that decisions are made, in effect, before those meetings.
Principals skip meetings they are supposed to attend.
A Spokane administrator told federal monitors that some principals sign agreements on how individual disabled children will be educated without attending the meetings when decisions are made.
Disabled students are not integrated into regular classrooms to the extent required by law.
A teacher at one Spokane school told federal monitors that disabled students are allowed in regular classes only if the regular education teacher agrees.
Decisions in hearings on parental appeals drag out far beyond a 45-day time limit. In 1993, the year that federal monitors examined, all cases that were not dismissed exceeded the time limit.
Violations in the Central Valley School District are less serious, involving wording omitted in procedures and other paperwork.
Mike Ainsworth, Spokane schools special education director, said he has seen the report but was unaware of the state’s plan for responding to it.
“It will affect us and all other school districts, not just the Spokane School District,” Ainsworth said.
Federal monitors reviewed records and conducted interviews in seven school districts as part of their monitoring visit in Washington state last year.
Washington receives $51 million a year in federal money to provide services to 104,000 disabled students.
Ruth Ryder, chief of the monitoring program for the U.S. Department of Education, said the Washington report is “fairly average” and typical of what monitors find when they evaluate states.
The Education Department gave the state 60-day and 90-day time lines to correct violations, but it agreed with Washington’s request for more time, Ryder said.
The state already is rewriting its special education rules and regulations, said Doug Gill, state special education director. The new rules, expected to be adopted in September, emphasize that disabled students’ education begins in regular classrooms.
“The philosophy the rules will underscore is that education of special students begins with regular education, rather than they start in self-contained classrooms and have to earn their way into a regular classroom,” Gill said.
The new rules also will allow parents to take part in early phases of decision-making about their children, including meetings they are barred from now.
School districts will resist including parents in those meetings and will complain about increased paperwork, Gill predicted.
He said he will answer reluctant school districts by asking, “Don’t the kids belong to the parents? Whose education are we talking about here - the education of the school districts or the education of the students?”
The state also will hire an independent contractor to monitor school districts at an estimated cost of $250,000 annually.
Monitoring now is done by nine educational service districts. The number of those ESDs causes inconsistencies, Gill said.
Also, because the ESDs conduct training and staff development on special education for individual school districts, there is a potential for a biased approach to monitoring, he said.
Giddings greeted the news of an independent monitor with glee.
“There’s so much inbreeding (between the ESDs and the school districts),” she said. “Everybody backs everybody up. I think (the state) realized the ESDs are too closely connected to the school districts. To expect them to monitor and be unbiased is not really realistic.”
ESD 101, based in Spokane, brings in outside evaluators from other ESDs to help monitor 56 school districts, said Superintendent Brian Talbott.
“That helped keep it as neutral as possible,” Talbott said. “But I’ve also been one who said that could potentially be a problem.”
The ESDs will not lose money because rising numbers of special education students will generate more federal money for training and staff development, Gill said.
The state’s plan will take time, and federal monitors won’t be back until spring of 1997.
In the meantime, the state will send copies of the federal report to all school districts and ask them to comply with its findings.
But Spokane parent advocate Karen Blaine wonders if that will be enough.
“Does that mean months or years? When will those districts be revisited?” asked Blaine, vice chairman of the state special education advisory committee.
“Children should not have to wait where we already know there is a problem.”