“Not-so-special treatment” in Seattle schools

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The Seattle Public Schools District’s overhaul of its special education services continues to regularly skirt federal law, spurring increased complaints and litigation from frustrated parents and their students, according to a new Seattle Times investigation.

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In 2007, a district-requested report found that Seattle schools segregated a significant number of special education students, whose abilities suggested that they could learn in a general education classroom, in isolated, separated settings. The district vowed to make special education a higher priority and began implementing a new model, called Integrated Comprehensive Services, to help move in the direction of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

According to the investigation, the district’s integration plan has been poorly executed due to a lack of proper teacher training, inadequate supports and schools failing to implement the student’s Individualized Education Plans.

Formal complaints against the district doubled in the past two years, with 70 filed in the 2011-12 school year alone. Also in the past year, parents have sued the district eight times and took the district to court another 16 times on formal complaints.

“The upheaval has spawned a culture of low expectations in which district officials seem to put avoiding lawsuits above engaging families, training staffers or educating children, according to dozens of parents, teachers, principals, advocates and experts. And they’re failing even at that,” wrote the Seattle Times in the investigation, dated October 20.

A key problem, the investigation found, is constant turnover in the district’s leadership. There have been six different special-education directors since 2007, which new SPS Superintendent Jose Banda acknowledges is a problem as he looks for a permanent director.

“It is great that Seattle Public Schools want to provide students with disabilities education in integrated settings,” said David Carlson, director of legal advocacy, with Disability Rights Washington. “Not only is that what the law requires, but more importantly it is an acknowledgement of the old adage that separate is not equal.

“However, this story highlights that a school cannot simply integrate students by ignoring their disabilities. Schools need to support teachers to provide students with disabilities the specialized instruction they need to succeed in the classroom.”

National Public Radio, also on October 20, highlighted the district’s challenges in reforming its  special education services, featuring a variety of individual stories of students and parents struggling to work with the district to obtain proper special education services.

Disability Rights Washington, the sponsor of Disability Rights Galaxy, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.