Dept. of Education investigates NEISD over issues with special-needs students

CLARIFICATION:

On April 27, KENS incorrectly stated the scope of a U.S. Department of Education investigation into special education programs in Texas. The department is investigating whether Texas school districts are failing to identify students with disabilities.

As part of that investigation, the department conducted on-site monitoring visits in February at 12 Texas school districts, two of which are in San Antonio: Northeast ISD and Harlandale ISD.

The department says those schools were chosen based on trends in the percentage of students identified as disabled, comments from the public and location.

The Department of Education's concerns were not directed at any specific school district but instead at the entire state.

 

ORIGINAL STORY:

SAN ANTONIO -- The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Northeast Independent School District over "serious concerns" about the district's ability to identify, locate and evaluate students who may need to be in special education classes.

Parent complaints to the Texas Education Agency escalated this now federal investigation. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services visited two of NEISD's campuses. They spoke to staff who are involved in identifying students with disabilities to figure out what's at the source of these complaints.

Columba Wilson's 12-year-old grandson is autistic and attended elementary and middle school in Northeast ISD for years, but Wilson says she started to notice that he was scared to go to school. 

"He told me... the teacher would lock him up in the old gym and he would spank him and he would turn the lights off in the gym. How long was he there? I don't know because his disability doesn't allow him to tell when or what," she described.

Wilson said that she approached his school at the time and asked for a different teacher. They told her that they couldn't honor her request, so she decided to take him out of school and homeschool him.

NEISD disputes Wilson's grandson's allegations.

"These allegations were not only investigated by our human resources department, but also by Child Protective Services as well as the Bexar County District Attorney's office, and all of those entities found that these allegations never happened and they were patently false," said Aubrey Chancellor with NEISD.

KENS 5 reached out to both the Bexar County DA's office and CPS. The District Attorney's office told us "probable cause could not be established to move forward with a case". CPS says that they don't have the authority to intervene so "we plan no further inquiries."

Wilson also provided documentation to NEISD from their licensed counselor Ron Palmer. He diagnosed her grandson with PTSD and anxiety. 

"I got him right before this happened and he loved school and liked going to school and hanging out. And then, after the incident happened, he regressed and had a hard time with him in session. He stopped drawing, stopped interacting," Palmer said. 

Right now, Wilson's grandson is in private school, but she wants public schools to better train their staff and have the right resources for students with disabilities.

"There's a lot of parents who have filed complaints, who have gone to the district, who have talked to principals, who are so afraid of retaliation and it's a very real thing when you know that your child has been abused at the hands of a school district," said Pamela Allen, an advocate for students with disabilities.

Allen added that Northeast ISD is spending money on attorney fees to resolve disputes rather than training teachers and getting proper resources for special needs children.

KENS 5 decided to do some fact checking and requested records of how much NEISD was spending on special education lawyers over the past three school terms. For the most recent school year, 2015 to 2016, NEISD spend $253,000 on lawyers for special education complaints. In comparison, Northside ISD which actually has more students, spent $193,000 on legal expenses related to special needs that same school year. Records also show that NEISD had two recent disputes that resulted in the school district paying for private school for these students until they turn 18.

"It's very rare that we are going to place one of our students in another facility, however, every once in awhile, parents will make that request and the ultimate goal is to grant that request," said Chancellor with NEISD. 

Chancellor also addressed why NEISD spends that money on lawyer fees:

"The only time that district lawyers are going to get involved in a particular situation is if parents or a guardian involve a lawyer first... We have nearly 68,000 students. We have 6,800 in special education and with a half a billion dollar budget. I think what we're spending on an average is pretty in line," she said.

One special education teacher who worked at an NEISD school for years says that he raised concerns with the school's administration that the school did not have the right staffing levels in special education classrooms. 

"So you have these students that are in there and, in the documentation, it says they're supposed to have one on one help... That one child that is supposed to have one on one is not receiving that one on one ratio, so that autistic kid is not receiving an appropriate education," he said.

He says he eventually quit because he didn't feel the school was doing anything about the staffing problems.

"My morals and ethics, I couldn't come home and sleep anymore. It was difficult for me to accept things that were going on, so I chose to leave," he said.

NEISD says that because this teacher chose to remain anonymous, they can't respond to his specific complaints. But they did say that they always follow Admission Review and Dismissal (ARD) documentation, which is what the school district uses to figure out what resources a special education student needs.

"I can just tell you that when an ARD is reached... both parties sign it, being the school district as well as the parents. everyone receives a copy, and we are going to follow that plan," Chancellor said.

The teacher says that he doesn't regret his decision to leave the school district and hopes that they will take a closer look at their special education policies. Overall NEISD says that they're not concerned about being investigated by the Department of Education. They believe that their staffing, training, and resources are above average compared to other districts.

© 2017 KENS-TV


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