Hundreds more students receiving special education services as Dallas ISD clears referral backlog

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This article was written by Corbett Smith of DallasNews on September 30, 2021.

Dallas ISD took the first step in clearing a backlog of over 2,000 special education referrals, some of which dated back as far as 2017.

As of last week, DISD had progressed in all but three of the 2,140 past-due referrals, either receiving the go-ahead to start the special education evaluation process or to have that offer declined by those families, district officials said.

DISD is now providing support services to 642 additional students, growing the district’s special education program by nearly 4%. Nearly 500 other cases are still pending an evaluation or an “admission, review and dismissal” meeting.

“I know we can’t take a victory lap when we caused the problems to begin with,” said Derek Little, deputy chief of academics. “But internally, and I hope with the community, it does start to turn a corner where we’re resetting expectations for ourselves about the work we do within special education.”

Federal law sets timelines for the steps that must be followed in the special education process, many of which are monitored by the state’s Texas Education Agency. The promptness of handling referrals, however, is not something the TEA checks. Official monitoring begins only once a parent gives consent for an evaluation.

In December 2020, DISD submitted a “corrective action plan” to the state after the TEA cited several incidents where the district’s special education department failed to comply with federal guidelines.

The backlog was discovered earlier this year as new DISD leadership examined the special education department’s structure and failings. In March, DISD brought in long-time Keller ISD special education director Gena Koster to serve as the district’s assistant superintendent for special populations

An internal investigation uncovered the incomplete referrals, caused by a lack of a formalized intake structure, a reliance on handwritten paper forms, and poor data tracking within the department.

DISD has since revised and automated many of those processes, also partnering with Houston-based special education consultant Stetson and Associates to look at the district’s staffing structure and caseload management.

The steps in the referrals “needed to be streamlined so that there’s a very systematic process,” Koster said.

“It’s kind of like the passing of the baton in a relay,” she said. “Everybody has to work together as a team, and everyone has to anticipate what’s coming next.”

The work is far from complete, though.

DISD has 407 cases still in need of an evaluation, and another 81 cases pending an “admission, review and dismissal” or ARD meeting — the final step before services are provided. Little said that the district would continue to work with independent contractors to ensure that the cases would be handled promptly. DISD has dedicated $1 million to clear the backlog.
In addition, the district has promised to offer compensatory services to all students impacted by the delay. Those services can include things such as after-school tutoring, summer school offerings, and additional time in speech or physical therapy.

Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney for Disability Rights Texas — an advocacy group that works with Texans with disabilities — said in May that such an extended delay would likely have lasting academic and emotional impact on those students, regardless of the additional help.

“Compensatory services are great,” Rynders said, “but they never quite make you whole.”

In 2016, Michael Crighton, 12, looked at all the paperwork his mother has collected over the years related to his struggles in school in The Woodlands. Crighton has autism and gets overwhelmed easily. His mother also kept the writing work he would do in school as a way to be able to negotiate with the school to get him the services Crighton needs.

In a statement to The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday, Rynders wrote that he and his organization were disappointed in the district’s progress. DISD has held ongoing meetings with Disability Rights Texas to provide updates and take feedback. Only recently did the district make clear that its self-imposed September deadline was for receiving consent from affected families, and not getting students through the ARD process.

“Even after a consent is signed it typically takes 45 school days, the better part of a semester, to complete an evaluation,” Rynders wrote.

Another possible point of concern is the number of families declining the district’s special education services.

Typically when a student is referred for special education in Dallas ISD, Little said, about 20% of families decline those additional supports.

But for the oldest overdue referrals — nearly 1,500 of which date back before the 2020-21 school year — 42% of families declined those services.

Little said that he wasn’t concerned “in the grand level” with those percentages. He added that the district was stressing that each campus’ student support team play a bigger role in referrals, especially those that were academically related.

“That is something that we’re working to tighten up this year and into the future,” he said, “so that 1) everyone in that child’s life is aware that a referral is being made, and 2) we reduce our number of disqualified children because we actually have a referral that is justified, documented, and where the student really needs services.”