In March, AdvocacyDenver filed a lawsuit against Denver Public Schools with the Colorado Department of Education, alleging that the DPS consistently denied black students identified as disabled and placed in emotional needs programs an appropriate public education.
Rachel Dore, the state complaints officer for the Department of Education, agreed with AdvocacyDenver, issuing a ruling Sept. 7 upholding the issues she identified and ordering the district to take corrective action. .
The DPS Emotional Needs Program operates in 33 schools, elementary through high school; students placed in the program are identified as having social, emotional or behavioral difficulties associated with a disability. About a third of these students are black, while only 14% of all DPS students identify as black.
“The district recognizes that black students are systematically overrepresented in center programs,” says Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, of the emotional needs program. “White students are consistently underrepresented. … We have expressed concerns about the evaluation procedures; we saw that they were biased.
Bisceglia, who has worked in the field of disability education for more than a decade, says DPS has always had a problem with over-identifying black students, especially boys, as emotionally challenged.
In addition to finding that black students were overrepresented in the program, Dore found that some students were not assessed in their primary language and that student assessments were not properly reviewed.
“There should be a pathway for them to leave the program,” Bisceglia says. “That was one of the issues and concerns we had is that we see a student can be assigned to an emotional needs program when they are in primary school and then we see them continue this college program. It is not always clear what the student must demonstrate to move to a less restrictive environment.
Legally, students are required to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. Before assigning students to an emotional needs program, where they are separated from the general student population, schools are required to exhaust other strategies to meet their behavioral and emotional needs. According to the decision, the DPS only did so in 24% of cases.
“We knew there were concerns and issues, but it was really shocking, the scope,” says Julie Rottier-Lukens, executive director of the Office of Exceptional Student Services for Denver Public Schools. “We, and I include our district leadership team, including the superintendent … are immediately ready to address this issue head-on.”
According to Rottier-Lukens, identifying and dismantling systems of oppression within DPS is a priority for Superintendent Alex Marrero, and reforming emotional needs programming is a first step for the Office of Exceptional Student Services, which includes special education and special services.
The office, formerly called Student Equity and Opportunity, was reorganized in 2021, after the district recognized that emotional needs programming was an example of institutional racism and pledged to reform it, creating the DISRUPT project. But nothing changed, says Bisceglia, and in June 2021, the DISRUPT project was shut down.
His work now continues through the Continuum Project, which takes a broader look at the Department of Special Education. “What we found was that there were concerns about the least restrictive environment and supports across the continuum for many different domains of children with disabilities and/or giftedness,” Rottier-Lukens says. . “That was why the project focused on the continuum of programs in different areas to ensure we met the needs of diverse students.”
But Bisceglia didn’t approve of the broader guidance, arguing the district was backtracking on its commitment to students in emotional needs programming, which has one of the lowest graduation rates. “There was a promise that they were going to do something about it, that they recognized the issues, that they recognized the harm that their practices were causing,” she says. “At the last minute they said, ‘No, we’ll put this on the back burner. We’re not going to advance that. And we feared that something might happen to these students.
Two months after the DISRUPT project was shut down by the DPS, AdvocacyDenver filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Officer regarding issues in the Emotional Needs Program. That investigation is still ongoing, so Bisceglia decided to file a state complaint in March.
Dore’s decision on this complaint includes five findings. The first claimed that the district had consistently failed to conduct comprehensive assessments and make proper eligibility decisions.
The second concluded that the district failed to provide the least restrictive environment; among other things, it did not ensure that students in the emotional needs programs could participate in extracurricular activities. “The district argues that if a parent wanted their child to participate in an activity at another school … they could have requested it,” says Bisceglia. “Yet there was no evidence to show that it had ever been offered, or that any parent was aware of it.” These concerns also extend to field trips and other after-school clubs, she notes.
The third finding determined that the district failed to send written notice of the change in placement to the parents. Since only 33 schools have emotional needs centers, students placed in these programs often have to go to schools other than those in their neighborhood, and parents were not always well informed.
The fourth finding revealed that teachers at two schools did not have the appropriate certifications and licenses to teach in emotional needs programs; Bisceglia says it shows the district’s lack of support for teachers. “What did not emerge from the report was the fact that – there were only a few exceptions – almost every teacher in an emotional needs center program is under three years old, often two years old, d experience as a teacher,” says Bisceglia. “They probably have wonderful intentions, but the only training they get from the district is how to use the Enrich program to write [Individual Education Plans] and how to physically retain students.
Individual Education Plans guide how students in special education programs will be treated in the classroom to improve their academic outcomes. The fifth finding in Dore’s decision found that Denver Public Schools had failed to “develop, review, and revise IEPs tailored to individual student needs.”
This finding speaks to students who have no pathway out of affective needs programming and hinders the academic progress of students in the program, Bisceglia says. Often, schools focus on behavioral improvements rather than academic progress or give students the exact same IEP year after year, even when goals aren’t met, she adds.
In its decision, the State issued appeals. By October 1, the district must submit a corrective action plan to the Colorado Department of Education. As part of this plan, the CDE will provide training to the district by January 2023. The plan is to include updated procedures regarding location determination by October 31 and a review of all assessments in courses by June 2023, which will then be used to develop a new policy. .
Rottier-Lukens says the district is not only ready to meet all the demands of the decision, but to go further.
“One of the things we intend to do to go beyond this is to invite and include more people to participate in these trainings,” she says. “For example, the results focused on teachers in the [affective needs] program and their mental health providers… We want to expand to really consider special education teachers in all areas, as children are first identified in their neighborhood school. We want to make sure that we build understanding at this level before children are referred to be placed in the most restrictive setting.
In light of the decision, the district also plans to review other similar programs. “As a district and as the head of this department, we definitely take responsibility for this issue,” Rottier-Lukens says. “It hasn’t just started. It’s been an ongoing problem for decades, probably, but we’re ready and determined to fix it and really change the system.
The fact that the state is stepping in to form the district shows the scale of the problem, according to Bisceglia.
“Some people would say this is one of the most important decisions the Colorado Department of Education has ever made,” she says. “He’s talking to the larger district and he’s putting the district under close scrutiny. It’s a decision where they say: your procedures may be well defined, but we don’t know if you understand them, or if none of your teams understand them. »