School officials denied special education services, parents say


The U.S. Department of Education coordinated the listening sessions across the state.

More than a hundred parents signed up to speak during a listening session in East Austin.

The forums were organized after a Houston Chronicle investigation into special education in Texas.

Frustrated parents criticized the Texas Education Agency and several school districts Thursday night, accusing them of intimidation, lying and racking up high attorney fees to get out of providing special education services to their children.

More than 100 people signed up to address state and federal officials during an hours-long and often heated listening session coordinated by the U.S. Education Department in East Austin. It was the fifth and final forum in a series of sessions held across the state this week.

Federal officials launched the effort after the Houston Chronicle reported in September that the TEA had mandated that districts keep special education enrollment at or below 8.5 percent, which led school districts to deny children special education services. The newspaper found that the policy saved the state billions of dollars.

TEA officials have denied requiring districts to limit special education enrollment, but said that if more than 15.1 percent of school district’s student population are special education students, the state requires an improvement plan.

The agency will no longer use the performance indicators to intervene in school districts

“Within the special needs spectrum, there is a lot of bureaucracy that can be involved in that process,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday. “It’s incumbent upon us to try to empower (parents) to have as much agency as possible to support their children.”

According to parents, the TEA’s efforts are too little too late.

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Jeff Surber said that Pflugerville school officials won’t acknowledge that his 5-year-old daughter has autism even though multiple evaluations have diagnosed her with the disorder. As a result, she is slated to lose extra support in the classroom next year when she starts kindergarten, Surber said.

“I’m very concerned about the future,” Surber told the American-Statesman.

Pflugerville school district spokesman Steve Scheffler said privacy laws prevent him from commenting on Surber’s child, but said that although some students “may not qualify as a student with autism, that does not necessarily mean they could not receive services under another eligibility. We work to achieve the academic success of each child.”

Yvette LaPee withdrew her 8-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome, from Cowan Elementary School in South Austin after she said teachers failed to implement agreed upon learning services. LaPee told officials on Thursday that school administrators repurposed another special education students’ individual education plan for her daughter’s plan.

“We have confirmed that Cowan bent over backwards to provide the best quality of care from the time the student was enrolled at the school to when she was withdrawn,” Austin school district spokesman Jacob Barrett said.

Other parents, some of whom traveled from other parts of the state, said that school district officials and their attorneys intimidate parents to dissuade them from seeking some special education services, have given false information about services their children could qualify for and that their children were bullied by educators.

“We fear retaliation just for speaking out,” said Brian Hankey, whose 11-year-old attends the Leander school district.

Leander school district spokeswoman Veronica Sopher said she couldn’t comment on Hankey’s case but said that district officials attended the session Thursday and will meet with families as appropriate.

Last school year, a little more than 10 percent of students in the Pflugerville, Austin and Leander school districts were in special education classrooms.

Jim Walsh, a founder of a prominent law firm that represents many school districts across Texas, told officials Thursday that the Houston Chronicle’s stories sensationalized the 8.5 percent benchmark. He said the figure is meant to keep school districts from labeling too many children, particularly minority members and those who can’t speak English, as special needs students.

Audience members booed Walsh and called him a liar.

Federal officials will take into consideration online comments and comments from the listening session to decide whether they will take any action in Texas.

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