Children are already being moved out of special education in response to a federal investigation of civil rights violations in Schenectady.
The city school district has 2,000 students in special education — more than 1 out of every 5 students. And many of them are not actually disabled, according to the special education expert hired to help the school district.
“I know that not one out of every five kids has a disability. That’s not how it is,” said Rita Levay, the district’s new director of special education.
The federal Office of Civil Rights got involved when investigators discovered that a disproportionate number of non-white students were being referred to special education.
Last year, of the students labeled with the disability “emotionally disturbed,” 49 percent were black. The district’s total student population is 35 percent black.
Similarly, of the students labeled as learning disabled, 23 percent were Hispanic. The district’s total student population is 16 percent Hispanic.
The Office of Civil Rights determined that some teachers referred non-white students for problems that were not as severe as those facing some of their white students, whom they did not refer to special education.
Levay’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.
By Tuesday, she also was supposed to have identified every student who had been wrongly placed in special education, according to the district’s agreement with the Office of Civil Rights.
She didn’t make the deadline, although she’s already sent some students back to general education classrooms and is preparing transition plans for other students.
There’s just too many students, she said, calling the Nov. 20 deadline “wishful thinking.”
But she said the district would identify all the students who shouldn’t have been placed in special education.
“We have begun the process,” she said. “We are looking at every single kid in special education.”
Moving back to a general education classroom wouldn’t just challenge students more. It might also preserve a career option.
Students labeled as “emotionally disturbed” are ineligible to serve in the military, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
He said the military would not take those students even if they moved out of special education after a short time. The military doesn’t want to put weapons in the hands of potentially unstable people, he said.
But if the district stated they were incorrectly labeled, they might be eligible for military service.
Levay also wants to move many of the learning-disabled students back to regular education classrooms. Even those who are truly learning disabled should be able to catch up with their peers after some intensive help, she said.
“We know about 70 percent of the kids identified with a disability are identified as learning disabled, which means they have normal cognitive skills,” she said. “Why can’t we catch them up?”
At the same time, she’s redesigning the entire system with the help of a team of teachers and administrators.
The goal is to ensure only disabled students are placed in special education. She’s confident that will happen.
“We have some great teachers in this district,” she said. “I have great faith in them.”
The district could turn things around very quickly. A district in Iowa managed to react so quickly to complaints of disproportionality in special education that the problem was fixed before the Office of Civil Rights finished its investigation.
In Iowa City, Iowa, the Office of Civil Rights began an investigation after a report of disproportionality in 2009. The school district worked with OCR, taking immediate action while the agency investigated.
The district began screening all students in reading to make sure non-white students were not unfairly targeted. Officials also implemented a program that tracked how students reacted to interventions in the classroom. That allowed them to quickly adjust interventions that weren’t working and to focus on the ones that were having an effect, officials said.
“It took OCR a couple years to do the report, so we kind of had this window,” said spokeswoman Kate Moreland. “We were actually not disproportionate last year.”
The district still has much to do, she added. But the difference between Iowa City and Schenectady was stark: Where Schenectady had two pages of bulleted problems in its OCR report, Iowa City had one paragraph.
Schenectady and Iowa City are among only five districts in the country to be investigated for disproportionality of special education in the past five years, said OCR spokesman Jim Bradshaw.
In addition to Iowa City and Schenectady, OCR is running investigations in New Mexico, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. The findings have not yet been announced in those cases.
In Schenectady, Levay is started with the basics: reminding teachers that students must have a disability to qualify for special education.
Meetings on special education in Schenectady too often began with, “Johnny needs more help than we’re currently giving him,” she said.
She said they should begin with, “Does this child have a disability?”
Because if he doesn’t, he should be receiving other help, she said.
In the meetings she’s attended, one student was assigned a mentor, another was sent to counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and a third needed a doctor but could not find one who would accept his medical insurance. School officials found him a doctor, Levay said.
For other students, teachers consulted with the two behavior specialists now working with the district. Those specialists help teachers design plans to manage a particular student in the classroom, rather than sending the child away.
“It comes back to that problem-solving model,” Levay said. “That was critical. We’re really thinking about what this kid needs.”
The district is also hiring employees who have the specializations that Schenectady needs.
The new psychologists hired this year have backgrounds in behavior management and were able to demonstrate that they could show teachers how to control their classrooms despite students trying to be disruptive.
The district also conducted three separate searches for a high school algebra teacher with a specialization in special education.
Until that person was found recently, Levay said, special education teachers without a certification in math were teaching the course. That wasn’t as effective as a specialist.
The district is also training its elementary school special education teachers. Many of them were not taught how to teach reading, Levay said.
She said that was a huge problem because most of the students sent to special education need intense reading help.
The general education teachers will be getting training in de-escalation and other behavior-management tools.
She’s expecting better results now.
“There are so many kids here who have such potential,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”