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DCPS still digging through special ed backlog

By Bill Turque

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee can justifiably claim progress in cleaning up some of the school system's historically deficient delivery of special education services. In the summer of 2007, 979 court-ordered hearing officer determinations--formal orders to the school system to place students in special ed programs--languished unimplemented in bureaucratic limbo for as long as four years. That backlog has been rolled back substantially.

But a recent memo to principals from chief academic officer Carey M. Wright indicates that serious problems remain at the other end of the pipeline, before students are declared eligible for special education. When students are first identified by parents or school staff as having possible disabilities, they attempt to address the issues in a regular general education setting. If that doesn't work, children are supposed to receive a formal evaluation, with tests, observations and interviews.

But in August OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent of Education) informed the District that there were more than 400 incomplete special education evaluations and IEP meetings -- sessions between parents and staff to develop an Individualized Education Program for each special needs student. It's earned the District a "Needs Intervention" status for compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (IDEA)

"The untimely evaluations may equate to serious delays in providing necessary accomodation and supports to students with special needs," Wright wrote in the Nov. 3 memo. She said some of the evaluations may be showing up as incomplete because they were incorrectly entered into the special education data base.

In any event, she announced that DCPS would be "undertaking a major initiative over the next two months to address and resolve" the tardy evaluations and IEP meetings. Principals will be held accountable for cleaning up the situation--either entering the correct data, conducting evaluations or holding IEP meetings--by mid-January.

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By Bill Turque  | November 8, 2010; 11:39 AM ET
Categories:  Add category, Special Education  
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Someone really needs to look into the scam being perpetrated by dozens of in the know parents every year. I was told of this way of getting DCPS to pay for expensive private school by a neighbor who used this tactic to get her son into a $40K a year private school, bus included. Here's what you do: enroll your child in their in-boundary DCPS school, but never send them in to the school. DCPS then cannot evaluate the child in a timely fashion, as the student never sets foot in the building. In fact, my neighbor continued to pay for and send her child to private school during this whole process. Avoid all efforts by DCPS to contact you or get your child into a classroom setting for evaluation. Hire attorney, sue DCPS, and like clockwork, DC is stuck with the tab for special ed services at LAB, Kingsbury, or any other school who agrees to accommodate your child. This is so well known as a tactic, that my neighbor was instructed on how to do it by yet another neighbor who had been told of this strategy by another parent. Rhee did nothing to discourage or even curb this tactic and in fact, was hailed as my neighbor's "hero" for waiving them through and onto the District's private school welfare system. Meanwhile, lots of other children, with much more serious issues than my neighbor's child, are still in mainstreamed classes, with no aides I might add, and parents who are not able to advocate successfully for their child, much less scratch a check for a special ed attorney. Where is the reform we were promised in special ed which sucks up over $300 million every year?

Posted by: citymom92 | November 8, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

After reading this article, it amazes me that they can that many students in limbo. They are not gettin the help they need, and they are suffering for it. It is wrong in either matter of entering it in wrong ot not following through with the process. I can not beleive that the parents let this happen to their kids, they should have made sure something was being done about it. Mant students fall behind because they don't get help or don't get the right help. We need to make sure that this does not happen again, so the students do not fall behind even more.

Posted by: bakere6 | November 8, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

The Chief Academic Officer should learn how to spell "accommodation."

Posted by: bugrad | November 8, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree that this should never had happened. Students that have a disability are already behind in classes and this just puts them further away from learning at the same level as others. Students who are confused and overwhelmed are usually the students who act out in class. This just added fuel to the fire. I am glad that it was finally noticed, but I am terribly worried that there are many other districts with the same deficiencies.

Posted by: kenny01h | November 8, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

I think that to leave that many children who may be in need of extra help to be successful in their education, without the help is awful. It is a perfect example of how this countries school systems are letting our youth down. So many laws and requirments are looked over every year, in every state's school systems that it is no wonder America is falling behind in the world of education. If we want out country to become the "power house" of the world, we need to step it up. Every child should get the best education they can possibly receive. Parents, teachers, and administrations need to fully committ to their jobs and duties. Until then we will continue to have children like those discussed in this article to be left behind or running into walls during thier educations.

Posted by: bowlinga2 | November 8, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe that there isn't more accountability for teachers in this area. It is sad that people are just now realized something needs to change when its the kid's lives we are talking about. I am glad someone is taking the initiative to better their education and fix the very broken system. Something needs to be down to check in with all school and follow up with those students who either need an IEP or need the extra help as student with a disability.

Posted by: mentzers1 | November 8, 2010 10:12 PM | Report abuse

I've worked for the school systems as an assistant. I have personally seen the teachers scrambling to meet deadlines of IEP's for children. Teachers become so consumed with all the other materials that have to be covered they seem to not focus on IEP's. While rushing to write the IEP to meet the deadline material is beingleft out. This hurts the student in the end because all of their accomodations are not written and are not being met. We need to do better to help all our children especially the children wit special needs.

Posted by: chelle_missl | November 8, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

I've worked for the school systems as an assistant. I have personally seen the teachers scrambling to meet deadlines of IEP's for children. Teachers become so consumed with all the other materials that have to be covered they seem to not focus on IEP's. While rushing to write the IEP to meet the deadline material is beingleft out. This hurts the student in the end because all of their accomodations are not written and are not being met. We need to do better to help all our children especially the children with special needs.

Posted by: chelle_missl | November 8, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse


Don't be so quick to blame this one on the teachers, though I know it's in vogue to do so for everything that ills the public school system these days.

Before I resigned from DCPS, I actually worked in three different school settings my last two years there. In EVERY school, as a special education teacher, I walked into situations where numerous violations were occurring--lost IEPs, overdue IEPs, special education coordinators who took extended breaks and threw all the paperwork on the teachers, special education coordinators who failed to do something as simple as faxing the front page of the IEP to Easy IEP (which is the only way the meeting would show up as compliant in the system), and I could go on. In my last school, the special education coordinator actually watched television the entire time he was there, and that did not change until I wrote downtown and brought it to the attention of folks off site! The principal was quite content to have allowed him to watch television and remain negligent in completing vital paperwork.

I sought to bring many problems to the attention of the Rhee administration,especially because she requested that we do just that when she accepted her position with the elaborate announcement on the steps of the Wilson Building, but I was victimized and branded a trouble maker for doing so. Except for apparently halting the viewing of television on the job by the special education coordinator, very few of my other concerns--which were actually more egregious violations of the law--were addressed by the Rhee administration and the special education supervisors that work downtown. I actually witnessed a dilution of the supervisor's power under Rhee. Though supervisors, technically, are to oversee the school's special education operations so that violations cited in this article do not occur, under Rhee, they were not allowed to criticize the principals or contradict the principals. In an instance where the principals were ignorant of special education law (as one of my principals actually admitted in an open meeting) or dismissive of it, violations were bound to occur.

Thus, the reports of violations in this story are a direct result of the long-term effects of the autocratic policies of the Rhee administration coming to light. I am not the least bit surprised. We need to brace ourselves for more stories like these, especially pertaining to the administration of special education.

This should be a reminder to folks on the outside of what a shabby job Rhee actually did, especially when it involved special needs students East of the River.

Posted by: vscribe | November 9, 2010 6:21 AM | Report abuse

The fact that the school could be allowed to maintain a 4 yr special education backlog is deplorable. The level of frustration the parents and student must be feeling would interfere with any good the teachers are trying to do without the IEP being in place. I am training to be a special education teacher and I also have a son with ADHD. The amount of paperwork that you have to complete for each child is staggering and although I agree that progress needs to checked and documented, we need to make sure that it is not to the detriment of the child. There are many dedciated teachers trying their best to provide quality help as well as some who are not up to the standards needed by the children. I hope the school system starts putting the children first because when they feel they are steadily getting further and further behind is when we start to lose our kids.

Posted by: arthurd11 | November 9, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

To maintain a backlog of this size means that the difficulties for everyone - special needs kids, teachers and other students will increase exponentially: The special needs kids fall further and further behind, teachers have to compensate for greater difficulties, and the regular students are impacted by teachers spread far too thin trying to teach students with increasing ranges of abilities and disabilities.

As well, many students with special needs have significant talents and skills; the longer they wait for accommodations to address the disabilities, the more frustrated they become and both they and society lose out on developing the potential in these students.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 9, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse

I think everyone in special education has at one time or another seen someone with power do something illegal. But you can't stop them because they have the power. If you are not tenured, and you complain - they fire you. If you are tenured and you complain - they find other ways to make your life horrible.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse


Just to warn you, you will see administrators breaking special education law either by 1) not giving the kids enough resources (money these days needs to go to test score prep) or 2) just not considering these kids important because they do not help life up student test scores.

Remember that for administrators these days their job is no longer to run a school. It's to get test scores up. So that is where they will put their attention.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Much of the back log is the result of parents scamming the system to obtain a publicly funded private school education for their kids, like citymon92 outlined above. By the way, these are not "welfare moms" in Ward 8 working the system. Many of these people are in Ward 3, have VERY high incomes (e.g. can afford to send their kids to private school if they wanted to spend their own money) and are well connected. If their kids are disabled at all, it is mild and blown out of proportion by hired gun experts. If haven't noticed, the number of diagnoses of "autism" have sky rocketed in the past 10 years. It is not because there is an epidemic of autism. It is because it is a convenient method of getting kids diagnosed as special ed by wealthier parents and obtaining a publicly funded private school education. They are sucking resources out of the system that would be better spent on children with serious disabilities.

Posted by: PepperDr | November 9, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

DCPS cannot be accused of not spending enough money on SPED. But the mafia of sharpshooting lawyers, clever parents (in all wards, believe me, not just the one mentioned) is bleeding the system dry. No supt., not even M. Rhee, has been able to manage this better. But it is out of control. The US attorney's office should be looking into the scamming, while the mayor's office and DCPS top mgt should be looking into firing some administrators and teachers who run their own scams or who show negligence or incompetence in running this important program -- for their own benefit, or so it seems.

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Posted by: goodlucky88 | November 9, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

bugrad..She did spell accommodate correctly. It was either the reporter or editor of the WP who misspelled the word when writing the story. So quick to down an educator...shame on you.

Posted by: Woodie731 | November 10, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

It sounds like we need to slim down the process.

Posted by: staticvars | November 10, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

Widespread conspiracies involving totally unrelated parties would have to exist for some of what is alluded to in the comments posted on this blog.

For parents to defraud a system to such an extent would require not only unrelated parties to participate, but DCPS itself would have to be a party to have such extensive fraud. Does not DCPS do its own assessment of students? The system claims to have experts on staff and under contract. Does not DCPS assess the private schools into which it places students? If it does not, then it should. What’s the excuse?

DCPS the propaganda series rolls on…The fact remains that DCPS has not had and still does not have the requisite staff, expertise, facilities, capacity, commitment, nor desire to educate many of the special needs children this school system is required to educate. Trying to create a “parent boogey man/straw man” or whatever you want to call it, does not change that very pertinent fact.

Backlogs and cost overruns in special education are not by and large a parent fraud problem, but a problem with DCPS pushing cases to litigation instead providing the services required under law in a timely fashion.

Stop creating boogey men and get to the heart of the problem…litigation…which is most often forced, i.e. parents do not get any response to help their children, and are therefore forced into it. This system has been broken for decades and no administrator up to this point has picked up the mantle to repair it.

Despite that, I have not given up hope. I am taking this opportunity with a new mayor coming into office to work to change the current environment. I hope others who are posting here are doing the same. There is strength in numbers.


Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | November 11, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

There is a lot of blame to go around in DCPS, as well as with parents and community. Special education is just not a priority in DCPS for some reason. There are some teachers who should be doing something else because they do not do their jobs. The same is true for administrators who cannot run a school. However, teachers and administrators in DCPS are asked to do so many other things outside of the purview of their job that teaching and learning looses focus.

When teachers and administrators are asked to be parents, social workers, police officers, counselors, psychologists, and more, when do they have time to teach? There is no excuse for this backlog in special education! Special education teachers need to start saying "no" when asked to cover classes and other duties that belong to administrators. Administrators need to start letting DCPS officials know that problems exist in their buildings that they can't handle instead of trying to gift wrap their schools for presentation and an "everything's alright" approach to DCPS! DCPS officials need to come into school buildings and see what is truly going on in these schools, to let the mayor and public know what needs to be done. Most DCPS officials were once teachers. Why don't DCPS officials teach a class or two in their area schools and see what goes on? Just stop in and take a class for a teacher who could really use that time to catch-up!

The behaviors and issues--from students, teachers and administrators at all levels-- that are tolerated in DCPS schools today are not tolerated anywhere else in the country! These behaviors and issues do exist now in our schools and have to be dealt with! DCPS needs a real reform initiative that involves everyone! Parents must be part of the process and their children, the students of DCPS, must be held accountable as well! First things first... Look at the truancy issue and attendance numbers District-wide and start there. If students are not in school, teachers and administrators cannot even begin to do their jobs! If students are in school then we will soon see who is not doing their jobs as teachers, administrators and DCPS officials. Obviously, it is not this simple but it is a place to start!

Reform in the District and with special education services will eventually come! The question is just how long it will take! If everyone keeps pointing the finger and complicating the issue, we will never get to the root of the problem. Take some of the responsibility off of teachers and administrators and let them teach our children. Get your kids to school and become an advocate for your child! I think you will be surprised at just how much help you'll get from their teachers and administrators if you make a real effort to become part of the solution! Then you will see just where the real problems are in the District and can start affecting some positive change! Everyone else in the country seems to be able to do this, why can't we?

Posted by: teachs73 | November 13, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

PepperDr said: "It is not because there is an epidemic of autism. It is because it is a convenient method of getting kids diagnosed as special ed by wealthier parents and obtaining a publicly funded private school education. They are sucking resources out of the system that would be better spent on children with serious disabilities."

This is so wrong, and many people outside the world of special ed/autism--and sometimes special ed teachers from other "specialties"--don't always understand the actual situation, either. There are a number of factors behind the increase in the rates of autism, and it IS a serious disability. While it's true that it might occasionally be over-diagnosed at this point in medical history, the huge increase in its prevalence can't be dismissed.

First of all, there's a greater awareness of what autism looks like, so children and adults previously tagged or dismissed as mentally retarded/intellectually disabled, socially and emotionally disabled, or even just "eccentric" (in the case of milder impairments like Asperger's Syndrome) are now being more clearly recognized. Since people with autism are more likely to benefit from certain types of intervention, it's crucial to identify them. Second of all, autism is a spectral disorder, with many degrees of severity and sometimes overlapping conditions that (in the past) made it harder to pinpoint accurately. Thirdly, autism is being recognized at an earlier age because medical and educational professionals are learning more and more about it. Thank goodness they know what a huge difference timely intervention can make.

On top of all this, at least some of the stigma attached to autism and related conditions is being eroded while more media attention is also being applied to them, so ignorant skeptics like you are probably too overwhelmed to see the reality behind the numbers.

If you can't accept what's really going on, at least get out of the way. The autistic children in my class come from all sorts of economic backgrounds. I can't speak to the private school situation, but I can promise you that there aren't enough public schools that even have qualified teachers like me, and unfortunately, the line of children who need us is getting longer.

Posted by: EdgewoodVA | November 14, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

From the Autism Speaks webpage:

"Today, it is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined...tens of millions worldwide are affected by autism annually. There is no established explanation for this increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered."

"...the best scientific evidence available to us today points toward a potential for various combinations of factors causing autism – multiple genetic components that may cause autism on their own or possibly when combined with exposure to as yet undetermined environmental factors. Timing of exposure during the child's development (before, during or after birth) may also play a role in the development or final presentation of the disorder.

There is a growing interest among researchers about the role of the functions and regulation of the immune system in autism – both within the body and the brain. Piecemeal evidence over the past 30 years suggests that autism may involve inflammation in the central nervous system. There is also emerging evidence from animal studies that illustrates how the immune system can influence behaviors related to autism."

Autism Speaks' mission is to increase awareness, fundraising, science, and advocacy efforts related to this puzzling disease.

The Autism Society of America brings medical and educational experts together with the goal of increasing understanding and improving the treatment of those on the autism spectrum.

The Autism Partnership unites families and individuals affected by autism for news updates, advocacy, and down-to-earth support.

While school systems like DCPS may not serve special ed students well--and they ABSOLUTELY MUST turn their efforts around--many other school systems are concentrating their efforts, collaborating with parents and their communities; one by one, we're making a difference. Please share the above resources with those who may benefit from them--empowerment IS within reach.

Posted by: EdgewoodVA | November 14, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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