State advocacy group sues for records after special needs students ‘pushed out’ of school
Flint — The calls came almost every day, while Marisa Sands was at work: her son Jea’len had misbehaved, disrupting the class, Flint school officials said. He had to be picked up.
Mother Rachael Kirksey got the same calls, too, starting on the first day of kindergarten in Flint Community Schools for son Dakota, a bright, playful boy diagnosed with autism.
Dakota, 5 at the time in 2014, was not permitted to come back to school, school officials told Kirksey. He was not allowed to return to the district for four months, she said. He sat home where Kirksey, who is visually disabled, made attempts to teach him.
“He is disrupting the other children from learning, banging chairs against the table,” the voicemail from school said on Rachel’s phone. “You need to come pick him up so other children can learn.”
Both Kirksey and Sands, whose son has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which can spur trouble with attention and impulse control, had sought and obtained individualized specialized education plans for their sons to help each child learn and cope with their symptoms. The district approved the plans and promised to use the techniques and procedures in them, both women said.
But when they asked for school records to better understand the problems in class and what teachers and aides were doing to address them, they said school officials in Flint refused to provide the documentation.
“They made me feel he wasn’t disabled,” Sands said of her son. “He was on the higher end of work, but when he is in a large classroom setting, he is not able to concentrate and do the work.”
A federal lawsuit has been filed against the school district on behalf of both families by the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service agency, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the mentally ill, physically disabled and developmentally disabled students.
One of the agency’s roles and legal rights under the law is to request records on behalf of families who are concerned their child’s educational needs are not being met by a public school.
As families with young children deal with the effects of lead from Flint’s contaminated water, obtaining student records is critical to the agency’s legally mandated role of advocating for disabled students, MPAS lead attorney Brad Dembs said.
“With the potential increase in behavior issues and developmental delays in Flint schoolchildren as a result of the exposure to toxins in their water, it is important that we be able to provide our services with as little encumbrance or delay as possible,” Dembs said.
“More students in Flint are going to need our assistance ... and resolving the records access issue now will allow us to serve more clients than we would otherwise be able to if required to wait months or more for records and spend our limited resources repeatedly following up with the district to get students’ complete files,” he said.
When the agency requested records for Dakota and Jea’len in 2014 and early 2015, they were ignored, MPAS officials said. They asked for them again and did the same for several other Flint students whose families had contacted them.
After two years of asking for student records and either getting no response or limited information from the district, MPAS sued Flint Public Schools in federal court on July 10 to get the records and enforce its authority under the law to inspect the records of students with disabilities whose parents have asked for help.
“It just reached a tipping point,” Dembs said. “We would send a records request and not receive any response. We sent our records request by fax or mail receipt. No matter what communication we used we can confirm it. ... We send a follow-up. Those were ignored as well, or records were sent and they were incomplete.”
On Nov. 23, a federal judge in Detroit ordered Flint Community Schools to provide copies of school records to parents of students with disabilities and Michigan’s protection and advocacy agency promptly upon request.
In his opinion, U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson wrote: “the school district repeatedly and persistently has failed or refused to disclose records requested by the plaintiff within the time required under the applicable statutes and regulations.”
Lawson granted a preliminary injunction, ordering the district to provide records within 3-5 business days of a request.
The district is appealing that decision. Calls to Flint Superintendent Bilal Tawwab and a board of education member seeking comment were not returned.
In court records, the district alleges it has provided all the records requested by the agency, that MPAS’ requests were too broad and must be obtained from several departments, and that there was a delay because of inadequate staffing.
The district also blames a fax machine that did not work, IT server problems in the district and a former employee who was unable to do the job.
As for the judge’s order that the district comply within five days of a request for student records, the district says in a court filing that such an order “would wreak havoc on the district in having to reallocate its own staff in perilous financial times.”
Statewide, about 13 percent of Michigan’s K-12 student population received special education services. MPAS receives 1,000 to 2,000 calls per year from parents who are concerned about their child’s educational rights.
From 2012 through 2015, MPAS said it has been contacted by numerous families of children with disabilities who attend school in Flint, raising concerns that the school district was violating their children’s rights under federal and state law.
During both of the previous two years, data shows MPAS has received more calls from parents of students enrolled in Flint Community Schools than any other school district in the state, with the exception of Detroit Public Schools.
The survey data for the past two years also shows that the percentage of parent callers in Flint reporting significant use of practices associated with “push out” has been among the highest in the state, Dembs said. The term is used to describe a variety of ways that school districts remove students with challenging disability-related behaviors from school such as suspension, expulsion or informal removal.
Kirksey says she is not surprised at all to hear that. With a 4-foot tall stack of water bottles behind her — needed because of the lead that’s contaminating city water — the Flint mother says her son needs compassionate and highly trained teachers to deal with his highs and lows at school.
“This has been very depressing and stressful. A parent should not have to worry about their child’s education and whether they are learning. I have to worry about whether he is being taught or treated well,” she said. “He’s good and smart and they turn on him when he is autistic.”