Texas Students Still Fighting For Special Education Despite Federal Order To Fix Services

Last year, as a seventh-grader at Lake Jackson Intermediate, Carolinda Acevedo struggled in class — even though she loves learning. She'd stay up late to finish her homework, but then did poorly on state exams. She lost interest in her favorite hobby, making slime in all the colors of the rainbow. Her anxiety and mood disorder flared up so much that Carolinda had to be hospitalized, her mom Christina Acevedo says.

"I knew that she needed help," Acevedo says.

She asked school administrators to evaluate Carolinda for special education. But staff at the Brazosport Independent School District determined she didn't qualify, saying she wasn't affected at school and still got good grades.

"I feel like my requests for help were falling on deaf ears and being delayed, and I was just sort of getting the runaround — when really my daughter just needed the support," Acevedo says.

She asked for a second opinion but says the school district ignored her request for months.

Across Texas, advocates, educators and families say they thought these kinds of delays and denials were over. They're a trademark of the state's former cap on special education that punished school districts if they enrolled more than 8.5% of their students in special ed.

In 2017, state lawmakers banned the cap, which had been in place since 2004. Then in 2018, the U.S. Department of Education found Texas had violated a federal law requiring schools to serve all students with disabilities. Federal administrators ordered Texas to create a plan to correct the problem, starting with identifying children who had been excluded and making up their missed services.

But in an investigation with the Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media found that the effects of the cap linger, and children continue to be shut out of their right to special education.

What's more, the Chronicle found that several key parts of the state's plan to correct the problem remain incomplete, including:

  • The TEA has failed to provide a promised "suite of resources" for parents to help them navigate the special ed system if they believe their child has a disability;
  • The agency has yet to give guidance to school district administrators on how to provide make-up services to students previously denied access; and
  • At least one regional center told districts they would get a "grace" period from the state if they didn't comply with state timelines for providing services, according to emails obtained by Houston Public Media and the Chronicle. The TEA has denied giving that guidance.

"We were hoping that school districts would start to take this seriously," says Shiloh Carter, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas.

She worked on the Acevedos' case and at least half a dozen similar ones in Greater Houston, with families who say they've been delayed or denied access to special education in the last year.

"We're seeing the same old, same old. This is what school districts were doing before when the cap was in place — kind of trying to deny eligibility and talk parents out of wanting special education services," Carter says.

"And I don't think the TEA has taken a stance and put pressure on these districts to do that, so you still have kids falling through the cracks everywhere."

Slow To Grow

In 2016, when a Houston Chronicle investigation first revealed the cap, just 8.7% of all Texas students received special education.

Fast forward three years and the Texas numbers haven’t moved very much — about 1 percentage point to 9.8% of all students in 2019. That’s still far below the national average of 14%.

The consequences of lower special ed rates in Texas have a long-lasting impact on children with disabilities, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis and Cornell University. They found that Texas students with minor disabilities who missed individualized services under the state's previous cap were less likely to graduate from high school or attend college.

The Houston Independent School District has the lowest percentage of students enrolled in special ed and has made the slowest progress of the state's largest districts, lagging behind Dallas, Austin and the Northside district in the San Antonio area. In fact, Houston's share of special needs students remains below the former 8.5% cap, at 7.5%.

Federal officials are still monitoring how Houston and other districts identify and evaluate children for special education, and if the Texas Education Agency is doing enough to support districts.

Houston's assistant superintendent over special ed services, Shannon Lachlin Verrett says that's what the feds asked about during a visit to Houston in May, part of a monitoring tour that included six Texas districts. Verrett maintains that the mindset around special ed is changing, even if he isn't pushing for a specific enrollment goal.

"We have to make sure that individuals understand it’s everyone's responsibility to make sure that if a student is struggling, that student needs to be evaluated," Verrett says. "The culture and the mindset of stopping evaluations at the recommendation of the state — those days are gone."

More Delays

But it doesn't feel like the mindset has changed much for several families who spoke with Houston Public Media.

Consider Zechariah Ford. In elementary school in Cy-Fair, he received accommodations to help manage his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But he didn't get that support at his new school in Dickinson after his family moved to Galveston County in 2018.

Concerned, his mom Azgrena Ford asked the district to evaluate her son for a disability and provide individualized services.

"For me, it was making sure that he received the services that he needed along with the protection that goes along with it. Because when a child is not protected, it seems like the school is able to kind of get away with a lot more and just kind of leave them in a bad place," says Ford, a single mom of two boys.

She first signed the official request in February, when Zechariah was in fifth grade. The evaluation was originally due in May, according to documents reviewed by Houston Public Media.

After some back and forth, that due date was revised to September, according to Laurie Rodriguez, executive director of special programs at the Dickinson Independent School District. But the final evaluation wasn't completed until the last week of October.

State guidelines require a school to conduct a special ed evaluation within 45 school days of a parent's signed consent.

Rodriguez maintains Dickinson staff completed it in the minimum amount of time needed for a quality evaluation.

"If a parent requests an evaluation, we do the evaluation because we take our responsibility seriously," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says out of 511 evaluations last school year, only eight did not meet the required timeline. At the same time, she says delays are virtually unavoidable because Dickinson ISD has seen a huge uptick in requests for special ed testing — and doesn't have enough evaluation staff to complete them, though they're hiring.

Still, Zechariah's mom takes issue with Dickinson's approach. While the family tried to obtain services last school year, Ford says administrators continually suspended her son and eventually sent the 10-year-old to an alternative school for alleged misbehavior such as "cursing" and "farting." His mom says Dickinson ISD referred Zechariah to law enforcement, who charged him with a misdemeanor crime for "persistent misconduct." While that case has been dismissed, Ford remains concerned about her son's education.

"I just felt like they weren't protecting him. They weren't doing their job. They weren't providing everything he needed to be successful," Ford says.

Now, she takes time to sit in on his classes every month to make sure he's doing OK. And in November, Zechariah will start receiving 10 hours of tutoring and other make-up services, under a settlement with Dickinson. Ford hopes that helps her son catch up because he missed so much class last year.

"The story is so sad because it's not just happening to my child, but so many other kids," she says.

Hell On Wheels

In Dayton, about 40 miles northeast of Houston, Hilda Chavarria struggled to get help for her oldest son, Xavier Castro, once he started middle school. He had received some support in elementary school under what's called a 504 plan. It provides some accommodations to students, but not the same protection or individualized instruction as special education.

"'Oh, the 504 plan, it doesn’t exist here,'" Chavarria says a counselor told her at Xavier's new middle school. "And I kept telling them, 'There's got to be a way…We're going to have the worst year ever if we don't get him help.'"

Chavarria says Dayton ISD's delay in identifying her son's disability hurt her family. She lost her job because she missed so much work to deal with the situation. Her son struggled in class and became a target for bullying, which he pushed back against and was disciplined. He was first sent to an alternative school, then expelled and grew severely depressed.

"He fell into the deepest, darkest place I've ever seen a child fall into," Chavarria says, adding "over something he couldn't control because certain adults or staff or the school was lacking education or knowing how to work this disability."

His mom says she didn’t know the magic words to request an evaluation. And Dayton administrators or teachers never offered or told her it was an option until the family requested one on the advice of pro bono attorneys. In February, Dayton school staff tested Xavier for special education and determined he qualified for services for his diagnosed ADHD and emotional disturbance.

Now 13 and in seventh grade, Xavier finally has more support in school. An aide shadows him in class, and he's learning social skills in a dedicated class. He's also starting to make friends for the first time.

"We stuck through it. And I'm very, very glad we did," Chavarria says. "But it was hell on wheels."

Like many districts in Texas, Dayton ISD hasn't increased its share of special needs children by much — only by about half a percentage point since 2016.

Dayton ISD says it couldn't comment on this family's case because of federal privacy rules, but maintains the district "appropriately identifies and serves students with disabilities, including those who have violated school discipline codes."

TEA: We've Turned It

More communication with parents about their rights and how to navigate special education is supposed to be part of the state’s plan to fix special education.

But it's one of several parts of the plan that the Chronicle found unfulfilled.

State administrators have told the feds they don't expect to catch up and identify all children with disabilities until at least June 2020, according to a letter TEA sent the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. Still, officials maintain they've made progress.

In an interview, Matt Montaño, the state's deputy education commissioner of special populations, points to a 56% jump in special ed evaluations, more funding from state lawmakers and more communication with districts.

The extra funding includes:

  • An additional $85 million in per-student funding for children with disabilities in general ed classes;
  • A commitment from lawmakers to pay off a $223 million federal penalty for previously shortchanging special ed funding; and
  • $50 million to reimburse districts for special ed evaluations from last school year.

And while a 1 percentage-point increase in special ed enrollment statewide may seem small, he says it still represents thousands of children in a state as large as Texas with over 5 million students.

"If you think about Texas as being a large battleship, I do believe we've turned it," Montaño says. "I do believe we turned it in the right direction and we're getting the momentum going in the right direction."

He says he expects the feds will agree when they respond to the state's latest version of its corrective action plan, potentially before the end of the year.

"We're still kind of in limbo because we're waiting for a response from them. But we do believe we've met all the requirements," Montaño says.

However, at least one regional special ed director has told districts they don't yet have to comply with all timelines for special ed, according to documents obtained by Houston Public Media and the Chronicle.

In a February 2019 email to school districts in Greater Houston, the region's former special ed director Ginger Gates told administrators that the TEA's statewide director of special ed, Justin Porter, recommended holding off on services or official special ed meetings until after an evaluation was "totally complete" — even if parts of the testing already indicated a likely disability and even if that meant missing state-mandated timelines for providing services.

"Districts will likely be given 'grace' for non-compliance given the state of things statewide. They recommended that the district also beef up general education supports during the evaluation time to reduce potential compensatory services," Gates wrote.

Guidance like this carries significant weight because regional service centers act as a liaison between districts and the TEA.

The TEA called the representations in the email "inaccurate" and "clearly not guidance that comes from the TEA," in a statement to the Chronicle.

Later, Porter told the Chronicle that he was advising districts to hold off on making decisions until they completed full evaluations. He said he told directors they would have an opportunity to explain any delays — as they have had in the past — but that wouldn’t excuse them for any missed timelines.

"We're not in a position to grant grace with any federal compliance indicators, and that's not something we would try to do," Porter said. "They were asking me, 'Should we sort of go around the system to be in compliance?' and my response was 'Absolutely not.' We have to make sure we do everything we have to do before we make decisions about kids."

Still, advocates say the email reflecting Porter's advice generates yet more disappointment with the state's response to the special ed crisis in Texas — especially when some districts are trying to serve students faster.

"It concerns me that with a law that's been in place since 1975, a scandal that was uncovered three years ago and with state lawmakers acting to ban the cap two years ago, we still have our highest-ranked special ed official in the state counseling districts to delay and deny services," says Dustin Rynders, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas.

Rynders says what’s more concerning than any misinterpretation of timelines is that Porter seemed to dismiss a way to solve the challenges Texas schools still face, leaving kids without services while they wait for testing for weeks or even months.

Feeling More Calm

Back in Brazoria County, Christina Acevedo and her daughter Carolinda, 13, got tired of waiting for services. Brazosport ISD didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

This fall, Carolinda left her traditional public school and started eighth grade in a new, online program. Sometimes she misses seeing her friends, but not the early bus rides — and definitely not the anxiety.

"A lot of times when I'd be stressed and try to take a test, I'd end up, like, flunking it," Carolinda says.

She's still not identified as needing special education. But she can study at her own pace, get extra class notes and listen to recorded chats with her instructors.

"It makes me feel more calm," Carolinda says as she logs onto her new laptop at the family's dining room table — her new makeshift classroom — with a cart of her school supplies, books and science tools by her side.

And it makes her mom feel better, too.

"I just can't drop Carolinda off at the school and trust that she is going to be OK," Acevedo says.

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