Group faults Wake's handling of suspended students with disabilities

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJuly 21, 2012 

  • The students affected Wake schools characterize students with disabilities as those who have conditions including autism, serious emotional disabilities, developmental delay, learning disabilities and physical problems. According to a complaint by Advocates for Children’s Services, students with disabilities are suspended at a much higher rate than students of typical backgrounds. These student make up more than 30 percent of suspensions, but only about 13 percent of the total school population. Students who have been suspended for more than 10 days are legally entitled to a “free appropriate public education,” to an individual education plan and to resources that will help them deal with any behavior problems that might have led to the suspension. The new complaint from Advocates for Children’s Services says that many students receive little benefit from the alternative means of education they are offered, which can include tutoring for as few as two hours a week, virtual education on computers that can be difficult for students who have disabilities to operate, and an inadequate number of seats in brick-and-mortar schools.

In a scathing official complaint to state education leaders, an advocacy group for children charges that Wake County schools are failing in their legal obligation to educate those students with disabilities who are on long-term suspension.

The complaint, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, is filled with specifics – such as accounts of students receiving after-school tutoring by filling out worksheets at a McDonald’s while a specially hired teacher plays with a smart phone. Many students received as little as four hours a week in supervised instruction, the complaint charged.

The school system said it would respond to the Department of Public Instruction, but it had no comment for publication.

The complaint, filed Thursday, is the third since 2009 by Advocates for Children’s Services against Wake schools on these issues. DPI investigators found in response to the earlier filings that Wake had failed to comply with state and federal regulations on educating suspended children who have disabilities. The new complaint also charges that Wake doesn’t supply transportation or free and reduced-price lunches to most suspended kids.

In addition, the computer-centered instruction methods used by some suspended students fall far short of helping them meet their goals, said Jason Langberg, attorney for Advocates for Children’s Services.

“Some of them log in and play around with the computer,” Langberg said. “Some of them log in and go outside and play basketball.”

Wake County has made progress during the past few years in reducing the number of students who are sent home for all or part of a school year. Starting in the late 2000s, the school system changed zero tolerance rules that had earlier resulted in 1,000 suspensions annually – the highest level in the state.

Long-term suspensions harm students who don’t have adequate alternatives, said Nicole Edmundson, whose son, 12, and daughter, 13, were both suspended for behavioral problems.

Her son’s long-term suspension plan called for him to walk to a library to meet a school-appointed instructor, who sometimes failed to appear without notice. Teachers who worked with suspended students do not have to be qualified to teach the subject that they are helping a student with.

“The teacher would say, ‘You should be able to do this,’ ” Edmundson said.

Call for accountability

The people who brought the complaint would like to see greater accountability on the part of the system and more public information about the efficacy of the programs used to educate suspended students.

A survey of Wake staff members involved with educating students who have disabilities found little confidence in the process. The survey showed that 75 percent of principals disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “Our district has an appropriate range of educational placement options to adequately serve students with disabilities.”

Langberg, the lawyer for Advocates for Children’s Services, says he can’t get answers to questions such as what happens to the money for free and reduced lunches that was paid to the system for suspended students. Edmundson, the mother whose situation is described in the complaint, said it took months to learn what sort of educational alternative would be offered her children.

“He was only there a few months and got suspended in March without their even more or less telling me what’s going on,” she said. “They weren’t returning phone calls. I never heard for two months about what they were going to do with his education.”

After initial attempts to get her children together with school-supplied tutors, she said, the process broke down.

“We haven’t heard anything in a month,” she said.

Waiting on Wake

Wake County will prepare a response to the complaint. DPI agreed with allegations in the advocacy group’s first two complaints, and it will likely decide within a week whether to investigate the newest round and whether to suggest more severe remedies.

“If Wake County had to spend the money to hire a full-time monitor,” that would help the process, Langberg said. “They’ve done it in many (systems), and it’s done in the child welfare system.”

Another approach could involve dropping the hard-to-enforce virtual programs.

“We are talking about students who need more than a highly qualified electronic program,” Langberg said. “What happens if the kid has a question? He’s told to enter a chat room. We are talking about a kid who may be sitting there crying.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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