Parents question LISD special education program

LEANDER, Texas — Aug. 13, 2009 — Parents of special education students in Leander Independent School District are organizing, saying the district is not providing for their children properly.

Jana Palcer, mother of a child with Down syndrome, said she started bringing parents together when she noticed problems with the way LISD was handling her daughter’s education.

“They’re basically warehousing special education students in the special education room,” she said. “It was just unreal what we uncovered.”

Palcer said she started to be actively involved with her daughter’s education after she joined the board of the Down Syndrome Association of Texas. Once she started to familiarize herself with special education issues, she said she realized LISD was not providing her daughter with enough of an education.

“They were not teaching her anything,” she said. “I just started realizing by law they should be doing more for her.” Palcer said her group currently includes approximately two dozen parents who have had problems at one time or another with the special education system in Leander.

Some of the parents have more serious complaints. Mark Short filed a due process complaint with the Texas Education Agency against LISD last year because of how his son was treated.

Short also exposed a weakness in the program that holds the records for LISD special education students. The FBI is currently investigating Short for accessing those records without authorization. He said the district started the investigation in order to divert attention from the problems in their system.

“That was very thoughtful of them,” he said. “They felt like they needed to reward me for bringing this to their attention.” Short is not the only parent who has accused the district of filing criminal complaints to cover its own misdeeds. Stacy Ford said she suspects her daughter’s school called Child Protective Services when she questioned how her daughter was being treated at school.

“They frighten parents into not advocating for their child,” Ford said. “Now the parent has to deal with this instead of the focus being on the school.”

Representatives from the district said they could not comment on the complaints because they were currently being investigated.

Palcer, Short and Ford all said they and other parents have had problems getting access to their children’s educational records.

Short said the district withheld records pertinent to his due process case until after the complaint had been dismissed by the TEA.

His complaint centered on his son’s suspension last year for making terroristic threats against the school. Short said his son, who qualifies for special education because of emotional disturbance, was asked to keep a journal of his thoughts for a language arts class. When the teacher read the journal, Short’s son was suspended.

Short said the excerpts that were used against his son included a poem he had copied from the school library and an exercise where he was asked to write the opposite of how he felt.

“Even the teacher doesn’t know if he broke the code of conduct,” Short said. “He can’t be punished for showing his language arts teacher his journals.”

Short said the TEA dismissed his complaint against the district because of a technicality. He failed to respond to a motion made by the district in time.

After that, he said, the district answered his open records request, providing him with copies of e-mails that he said proves his son was treated unfairly.

Short has been home schooling his son since the incident, saying the school has insisted on punishing his son further if he is re-enrolled.

Palcer said her problems with the district stemmed from her daughter’s educational plan. Children in special education are each given an individual education plan, or IEP, that states specific goals that child is supposed to meet. Palcer said her daughter’s IEP included vague goals such as “will increase communication skills,” or ridiculously simple goals such as “will put on a bra for gym class.”

She said her daughter had been chosen for a life skills path instead of an academic path, which she called “a death sentence.”

She said she saw similar, “cookie-cutter goals” when she talked to other parents.

“It’s like they’re saying ‘we’d better start figuring out what K-mart they’re going to work at,’” Palcer said. “Today, children with Down syndrome go to college; they get married; they live independently.”

Kathy Clayton, director of special education for the Texas Education Agency, said that while she cannot comment on Palcer’s case because she is not aware of the details, in general an IED should include specific, quantifiable goals. That said, she said IEDs often include generalized goals with more specific objectives under those goals.

And while goals should be tailored to the student, she said groups of students often have similar goals because they have similar needs.

Clayton said parents are always allowed to disagree with their child’s IED at a required annual meeting with staff. If a parent does disagree, the school district is required to respond with new goals within 10 days.

Palcer said the problem is parents don’t know what their children should be learning.

“If you’re like I was and trusted blindly, you think you’re happy, but you’re really being harmed,” Palcer said. What’s more, Palcer said the district does not collect any data on whether or not special education children are meeting the goals on their IEPs. Without any specific data, she said there is no accountability for special education teachers.

Clayton said school districts are required to measure progress toward goals, but the state does not dictate how.

Ford said she had similar problems with her daughter’s education plan. Her daughter’s teacher had recommended she spend more time included in regular classes and less time in the special education room. Ford said the district allowed only half of the recommended inclusion time because of lack of resources.

Clayton said that while districts are not allowed to deny time with other age-appropriate students based on resources, there are a number of valid reasons a district can refuse such time — such as safety concerns.

Ford said she also had issues with the way her daughter was treated by LISD staff. She said on two separate occasions, teachers had to restrain her daughter because of avoidable incidents.

Because her daughter has Down syndrome, Ford said it can be difficult to keep her focused on certain tasks. She said when forced to do something they don’t want to, Down syndrome children typically get very stubborn and the best way to handle the situation is to redirect their attention.

When the special education teachers wanted Ford’s daughter to complete a puzzle, Ford said they simply kept pushing her until she lashed out. The second incident involved similar circumstances, Ford said.

“Because of the way they handled that situation, they caused that restraint,” she said. “It was a real eye-opener that they don’t know what they’re doing.”

After both incidents, Ford said she got paperwork from the school that was full of errors.

After she complained, she said there was another incident that led to the teachers calling Ford at work to come pick her daughter up from school.

This time, she said the teacher asked her if there was any abuse at home. She denied the charges, but shortly after, a CPS caseworker came to her home and started an investigation.

Ford said she and her family were completely cleared in the investigation, but it was still a stressful experience. Though the tip was anonymous, she is convinced school staff called CPS to divert attention from their own wrongdoing.

“Myself and two other parents realized there were some things going on at that particular school that weren’t right,” she said. “It really disturbed me that they had made those accusations. If anything, something is going on at the school.”

All three parents said the most frustrating part of their situations was the lack of oversight from the district. All three said they complained to the superintendent and the board of trustees and got very little response.

Palcer and Ford said they have each had meetings with Superintendent Bret Champion and other staff, and both said they came out of those meetings feeling like their complaints were being dismissed.

“Nothing really gets addressed,” Ford said. “[Your complaint] goes into a black box. You have no idea what happens after that.”

Palcer brought her complaints to the board at its last regular meeting. Board members told her they could not do anything until she filed a formal grievance. Palcer said it was the first real response she had gotten from them.

Champion said the board is limited in how it can respond to complaints.

“We have a formal process for hearing complaints and this process ensures that complaints are heard and considered,” he said through a spokesperson, but would not comment further.

What’s worse, Palcer, Ford and Short said there is no oversight from the state. Short said nationwide, when a parent files a formal complaint against a school district, the parent prevails 30 percent of the time. When a complaint is taken to the TEA, Short said the parent prevails 1 percent of the time.

“That either means school districts in Texas are almost perfect or that the system is unfairly weighted against the parent,” he said. Added Ford, “The system that was put in place to be a checks and balances are not there.”

Clayton said the figures Short quoted were from a Senate education committee report and were not accurate. She said there are no national figures and parents prevailed 30 percent of the time in TEA due process hearings.

However, she said due process hearings can be incredibly frustrating for parents because they are very legal processes and therefore can be confusing and expensive.

And while the process may seem weighted toward school districts, she said there is another reason parents lose so often in a due process hearing.

“When a school district does not think they will prevail in a due process hearing, they settle,” she said. She said less invasive solutions can be reached by filing a complaint with the TEA, or asking for mediation.

“What we basically do is try to get the two parties to work together,” she said.

Palcer said though it is discouraging, she and her group will not stop fighting until something changes.

“We are not just a silly little group of parents that are mad,” she said. “We are a highly organized group who have evidence of misconduct.”