Detroit schools target special ed failures

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Alex Thornton, 9, climbs on father David Thornton's back while playing outside their Detroit home. The Thorntons want the city's school district to do better in providing special education services for Alex.

Detroit — Michigan's largest school district is failing its special education students by not meeting their needs or identifying them as early as possible to provide necessary services, according to its superintendent and the early results of two audits.

Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti is calling for sweeping changes to the district's special education department and created a plan to address district shortfalls when it comes to providing the legally mandated evaluations and services.

Two audits of the district's program — one internal and one performed by the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of urban schools — show the school district:

  • Lacks an effective system for identifying and evaluating children who may be eligible for special education services under a federal law called Child Find
  • Often fails to respond to parent requests within 10 days — as required by law — to evaluate their child
  • Uses referrals to the districts Resource Coordinating Team, a school-based problem-solving group, as a way to delay or deny a requested evaluation
  • Fails to review records of new students that may need services

A large number of complaints have been filed against the district at the state and federal level from parents of special education students that deal with "basic issues and questions," Vitti said. The district declined to provide a specific number as it reviewed complaints.

"I have never been in a district with that many complaints," Vitti recently told a board committee. "Those complaints are reflective of the lack of the district responding to issues and challenges. So parents feel their only recourse is to go to the federal or state level because responses weren’t being provided."

Common complaints focused on how and where a student is placed in the special education environment and whether Individual Education Plans are being implemented properly.

Vitti said his staff continues to review complaints, and he already has replaced the majority of top leadership in the special education department.

On Tuesday, the Detroit Board of Education approved 7-0 Vitti's Exceptional Student Education plan, which aims to address three major areas: repeated noncompliance with student identification, Individual Education Plan implementation and disciplinary procedures for special education students.

The plan requires the district to develop policies and procedures to allow staff to follow the law and meet the needs of students and families. In many cases, these policies and procedures simply do not exist, Vitti said.

The plan also calls for increased teachers training in special education and filling an 18-teacher vacancy in the department. Vitti said many current employees need professional development on the procedures set out by state and federal laws.

“This is why we have so many complaints filed against the district because we’re not responding to some basic issues and questions fast enough," Vitti said last month. "Parents are frustrated. They feel their children aren’t being served properly, and then we get into a litigious situation when we just need to problem solve."

Vitti said the audits and the full plan will be on the district website next month.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a board member and former special education teacher in the district, said DSPCD wants "parents to know we are advocates for special education students."

"We have a new name and a new plan," she said. "We hope it will bring parents back to the district with its emphasis on research. We hope it will bring their department back to where it was.”

The district had 8,240 students deemed eligible for services last year, which is 16.2 percent of its population, compared to 13.1 percent statewide.

Too many DPSCD students are placed in restrictive environments in special education rather than being placed in the least restrictive environment as the law calls for, Vitti said.

"A lot of learning disabled students are being placed in self-contained classrooms where in most districts across the country those students are in the inclusion model with a teacher providing support," he said. "We have to start moving more students into inclusionary structures. A lot of our complaints are coming from that factor."

Vitti wants to create a hotline for parents to call with concerns over special education and has called for a Parent Advisory Council for special education families districtwide.

A desire for a better system

Patty and David Thornton are planning to join that council. The Detroit parents say they are frustrated with the district's special education system but have hope after hearing Vitti's proposed plan last month.

The couple is on their third DPSCD school in two years for their son Alex, who has Down syndrome. The Thorntons said they pulled Alex, who is 9, out of school after the district failed to provide basic classroom safeguards such as keeping him from leaving the class unnoticed, adequate staffing for special education students and inclusion for Alex in a general education setting.

"The challenges were staggering, and Alex can't be part of an experiment," David Thornton said as he watched his son play on his bike outside their home in the Boston-Edison district in late June.

Patty Thornton came to a June 25 board of education committee meeting to ask the district to improve the level of service it gave Alex and other special needs students.

Patty first enrolled Alex in a DPSCD school in fall 2016. Thornton said she became frustrated with the staff for their lack of knowledge on the law and what she called their lack of caring.

At one school, Alex wandered out of the classroom and was later found in a bathroom by staff. Thorton said she was so upset, she pulled him out of school for two weeks and taught him at home.

No one from the school called to check on Alex the entire two weeks, she said.

"The mindset needs to be changed," she said. "Even if the teacher knows the law, I want my child to be wanted and loved. The attitude, I feel, is ‘I am stuck with this kid.’ It makes me cry. The attitude is ‘he can’t read.’ But can’t you see what he can do?"

Detroit isn't alone

Teri Chapman, director of the Office of Special Education at the Michigan Department of Education, said all school districts face challenges in implementing special education requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA.

Schools are the largest identifiers of children with disabilities, Chapman said, and all districts must balance their legal obligation to meet the educational needs of a child with the civil rights a child has to be educated with his or her typically developed peers.

"If you have turnover, staffing issues, all of those things —  the law doesn’t care about that. You have these obligations, and there are timelines," Chapman said.

"The challenges that all districts have, they are exacerbated in a district as large as Detroit. The system you have to have in place from the very beginning and the way you provide services is important."

Asked whether DPSCD was considered non-compliant under the law based on Vitti's statements, Chapman said yes.

"Yes, everybody is non-compliant for something at some point," Chapman said.

"There is a lot of stuff to do in a fairly short time. You need a really good system and lots of continuity so systems are not breaking down or failing."

Detroit is not alone in its struggle to find and identify special education students.

In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued Flint Community Schools, the state education department and the Genesee Intermediate School District in 2016 in a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged systemic deficiencies in Flint’s special education program.

The case, which is pending, focused on allegations that the Michigan Department of Education failed to find and serve children with special needs — under the Child Find requirement — and to address the impact of the lead-tainted water crisis.

"It is a problem across the country, but there are some districts who are doing it well," said Greg Little, chief trial counsel for Education Law Center in Newark, who represents Flint children in the case and whose work focuses on the education rights of public school children.

"In large part, it's a question of resources," Little said. "It requires a sensitivity to the issue that is often lacking."

Parental involvement

Caryn Ivey, a co-director of the Michigan Alliance For Families, which informs, educates and supports parents of children with disabilities in education, said there are more than 200,000 Individual Education Plans in the state.

"We encourage parents to start learning, and we caution it's going to be overwhelming. There is a lot to learn and a lot to know. But it can be done," Ivey said.

The organization educates parents on their rights under the law and about the state complaint process, but Ivey said often following the chain of command can get quicker results.

"Talk to the teacher, then the principal and the special ed director. We encourage parents to do many things in writing," she said.

Many parents are hesitant to file complaints and should not be, she said.

"Stop running around. If this is your home district, there is a process to get them to do what they should be doing," Ivey said.

The Thorntons recently enrolled Alex in a Montessori program at Spain Elementary for the fall where they had a good experience for a few weeks this past school year. They have met Vitti and spoke to him about the problems. Vitti also met her son.

Patty Thornton said she is thrilled about Vitti's plan for a new hotline being set up for district parents of special needs children. Thornton does not want to file a complaint against the district. She wants change and remains hopeful it will come under Vitti's leadership. 

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we need these steps," Thornton said of Vitti's plan.