A whole bunch extra college students receiving particular training providers as Dallas ISD clears referral backlog

Dallas ISD has taken the first step to clear a backlog of over 2,000 special education referrals, some of which date back to 2017.

By last week, DISD had made progress on all but three of the 2,140 overdue referrals and had either received approval to begin the special education evaluation process or rejected that offer from these families, district officials said.

DISD is now offering support services to 642 additional students, expanding the district’s special education program by nearly 4%. Almost 500 other cases have yet to be assessed or an “admission, review and discharge” meeting.

“I know we can’t do a winning lap if we caused the problems from the start,” said Derek Little, assistant study director. “But internally, and I hope, with the community, a turning point is beginning where we are realigning expectations of ourselves in relation to the work we do in special needs education.”

Federal law sets timetables for steps to be followed in the special education process, many of which are overseen by the state’s Texas Education Agency. However, the speed with which recommendations are processed is not checked by the TEA. Official monitoring does not begin until one parent agrees to an evaluation.

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

The backlog was discovered earlier this year when the new DISD leadership investigated the structure and shortcomings of the special education department. In March, the DISD brought in the long-time director of special schools Keller ISD, Gena Koster, as deputy district inspector for special groups

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

DISD has since redesigned and automated many of these processes, and is also working with Houston-based special education advisor Stetson and Associates to investigate the district’s workforce and case management.

The steps involved in transfers “need to be streamlined so that there is a very systematic process,” said Koster.

“It’s a bit like handing over the baton,” she said. “Everyone has to work together as a team and everyone has to anticipate what’s next.”

However, the work is far from over.

DISD has 407 cases that still require assessment and a further 81 cases that are still awaiting “admission, review and discharge” or an ARD session – the last step before the service is provided. Little said the district will continue to work with independent contractors to ensure the cases are handled promptly. DISD has allocated $ 1 million to help clear the backlog.

Exterior view of the Dallas ISD administration building on Monday, April 6, 2020 in Dallas.

In addition, the district has promised to offer compensation to all students affected by the delay. These services can include things like after-school tutoring, summer school offerings, and extra time in speech or physical therapy.

Dustin Rynders, Texas senior disability rights attorney – an advocacy group that works with Texans with disabilities – said in May that such a long delay would likely have lasting academic and emotional effects on these students, regardless of the additional help.

“Compensation is great,” said Rynders, “but they never make you whole.”

In 2016, Michael Crighton, 12, looked at all of the paperwork his mother has collected over the years relating to his struggles at school in The Woodlands.  Crighton has autism and is easily overwhelmed.  His mother also kept the paperwork he would do at school in order to negotiate with the school to provide him with the services Crighton needs.

In a statement to the Dallas Morning News on Wednesday, Rynders wrote that he and his organization were disappointed with the district’s progress. DISD held ongoing meetings with Disability Rights Texas to provide updates and receive feedback. Just recently, the county made it clear that its self-imposed September deadline is to get the consent of the families concerned and not get the students through the ARD process.

“Even after a consent form has been signed, it typically takes 45 school days, most of a semester, to complete an assessment,” wrote Rynders.

Another potential cause for concern is the number of families who are opposed to the district’s special education services.

Typically, about 20% of families turn down this extra support when a student is referred for specialty training in Dallas ISD, Little said.

But for the oldest overdue referrals – nearly 1,500 of which will decline before the 2020-21 school year – 42% of families turned down these benefits.

Little said he didn’t care about these percentages “on a grand scale”. He added that the district emphasized that student care teams on each campus had a bigger role to play in referrals, especially those that were academically related.

“We are working to tighten this year and in the future,” he said, “so that 1) everyone in this child’s life knows that a referral is happening, and 2) we reduce our number of children disqualified because we actually received a referral that is well-founded and documented and where the student really needs services. “

The DMN Education Lab deepens reporting and discussion on pressing educational issues that are critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control over the Education Lab’s journalism.


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