D-50 special ed moves draw scrutiny

HARVARD – Ted Johnson suffers from depression and anxiety. A sixth-grader in special education classes, he reads at a second- or third-grade level.

A new student with District 50 in the 2009-10 school year, 12-year-old Ted was in a special education classroom.

But then came the fall of 2010, and Ted was put into mainstream classes, a move that his mother, Sharon Goodman, said was without her permission.

That move and others allegedly like them are part of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights into District 50’s handling of its special education students.

“When we got his schedule for the new year, ... it was mainstream [classes],” Goodman said. “I couldn’t understand why they did that, and the principal said, ‘Let’s just try it.’ ”

Goodman said things only went downhill for Ted, and she requested that he be put back into special education classes.

“In October, it got so bad,” Goodman said. “He was just crying [about] having to go to school. He was getting failing grades because he doesn’t understand the work.”

But now that he is back “where he needs to be,” his “stress level has gone down considerably,” Goodman said.

The Office of Civil Rights is investigating allegations of discrimination against District 50, which, according to a complaint, changed students’ Individualized Education Programs without first notifying parents.

Federal law prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity that is a recipient of federal dollars.

The complaint states that students with disabilities in the elementary, junior high and high schools were discriminated against when District 50 changed provisions in their IEPs in the fall 2010, “causing significant change in placement without following evaluation and placement procedures or affording due process.”

An IEP is a detailed education plan created for an eligible student by an IEP team. An IEP includes information about what the child is learning, what modifications or accommodations a student needs for success, and what educational benchmarks that child should reach. Changing an IEP requires a referral, a series of tests and evaluations, and finally, permission from the child’s parents.

The Office of Civil Rights determined that it has the authority to investigate this complaint. An open investigation does not imply guilt, an attorney for the office said.

Because an investigation was opened “in no way implies that the Office has made a determination with regard to its merit,” Aleeza Strubel, team leader/supervisory attorney, wrote to District 50 Superintendent Lauri Tobias.

Through Freedom of Information requests filed by the Northwest Herald, the newspaper received correspondence from the Office of Civil Rights sent to Tobias dated Dec. 3, a second dated Dec. 15, and a copy of the original complaint.

Tobias said the allegations were unfounded and that the Office of Civil Rights has an “obligation” to investigate any complaints.

“We absolutely did not change IEPs with students,” Tobias said. “We have a procedure, and we go through the process beautifully.”

But that’s not how former junior high school psychologist Peter Koehn sees it. He said a District 50 administrator unilaterally changed students’ IEPs without consulting parents or informing parents of their rights. He said there were about 15 to 20 students whose IEPs were changed at the junior high in the fall 2010 term. The Office of Civil Rights is investigating every District 50 school.

Koehn has been at odds with the district about the IEP changes. He was fired Jan. 31 from the district and filed the complaints that launched the Office of Civil Rights investigation.

The Office of Civil Rights launched a second investigation into the district to determine whether Koehn was retaliated against, as he alleges.

Etta K. Brown, a retired school psychologist and author of “Learning Disabilities, Understanding the Problem and Managing the Challenges,” said IEP changes without parents’ permission were not uncommon.

“It is a common thing when you get an administrator who does not have a proper understanding of the law,” Brown said.

Brown has no connection to this case but often consults with parents of special needs students about their legal rights.

The most common practice is moving children from mainstream education classes to special education, she said.

“Keep in mind that the power in this belongs to parents,” Brown said. “Parents’ rights under federal law supersede those of the school.”

What might motivate a school to change IEPs could come down to finances, she said.

“Money is a big factor because that aide is extra money,” Brown said. However, “the school district doesn’t pay for that aide; the state pays for [the aide]. ... The school district is losing money to take that child out of special education.”

But as Koehn sees it, District 50 students were kept in a special education study hall, meaning that the students kept their special education designation and the school district continued to receive special education dollars.

“If you have fewer special education students taking fewer special education courses, you have fewer special education teachers, fewer special education aides, classrooms,” he said. “If those things take place, you’re putting less money into special education.”

Tobias said that special education funds are directed to the general fund, but that money “has to be spent … on special education – period.”

The Office of Civil Rights collected names and telephone numbers of all district special education staff and any grievances that were filed by parents or employees regarding the same issue, along with a narrative response from the district.

The district also had to provide a list of all students in the district with an IEP in the fall 2010 term along with students’ names and the dates of their last IEP, amendments to the IEP if they were changed in the fall 2010 term, and copies of class schedules in the fall 2010 term for students with IEPs that were amended.

Tobias said the district has complied with all of the office’s requests.

According to the second complaint, the district retaliated against Koehn by making him participate in a pre-disciplinary meeting in October 2010 with the superintendent.

Further documents sought through a FOIA request related to the discrimination investigation were denied by the Department of Education on the basis that it was an open investigation. Of the 53 pages reported to be associated with the investigation, copies of only 10 pages were made available to the Northwest Herald with personally identifiable information redacted.

Files related to interviews conducted by the Office of Civil Rights and the district’s response, totaling 43 pages, were denied on the basis that “release of this information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

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