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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

LAUSD Special Education Failings Still Flying Under The Radar

Brianna Sacks |
September 24, 2012 | 12:24 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

A group of special education students at a recent field opening. (Brianna Sacks/Neon Tommy)
A group of special education students at a recent field opening. (Brianna Sacks/Neon Tommy)
Thirteen percent of America's public school students receive special education services. LAUSD closely mirrors this statistic. 

L.A. Unified schools enrolled 680,000 students last year, more than 82,000 of them were special education students, and records show that thousands of these students are not receiving proper educational services.

More than two decades since a 1993 lawsuit against LAUSD for failure to provide special education services led to federal oversight of the program, L.A. Unified remains under the federal court's jurisdiction and is monitored by court monitors. 

The district recently failed for an eighth straight year to meet special education delivery targets for disabled students, California Watch reported.

The LAUSD Division of Special Education states that every child with suspected special education needs should be assessed and then potentially receive an individualized education program. The individualized program is a federal and state mandated document from the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that determines "the provision of a free and appropriate public school education for children and youth ages 3-21 who have disabilities," the National Center for Education Statistics states.

Special education students must have a signed indiviudal education program before receiving services. The documents are reviewed yearly to determine how well the program is meeting the student's needs.

"The issue is that it [IEP] is an unfunded mandate. The schools have to take care of these kids by federal law but no funds are given to do it. The district has to fund these services out of their own money," said Ran Klarin, a former LAUSD administrator.

Special education is not so much an unfunded mandate, as an under-funded mandate. When it was funded in 1975 it was supposed to be fully funded with all states in compliance, as of now it is less than 10 percent funded and no state, including California, has ever been in full compliance with the law. Such federal funding is most important for low-income students who make up a disproportionate number of special education students compared to the general student population.

Families who feel their child did not receive proper special education services may file for a Due Process Hearing with the school district. In most cases, parents claim that the district denied their child free appropriate public education. In the vast majority of these appeals, the district prevails.
Retired L.A. Unified middle school math teacher Rick Selan offers free representation for special education students for low-income underrepresented minority families seeking services from the school district. He has worked on many cases with children who never received an indivualized education program received the wrong one, or required Non-Public School Placement.

Many of his students come from families whose parents work multiple jobs and do not have the time to carefully review the program, or have trouble understanding the wording, often resulting in parents accepting terms that do not adequately address the child's needs. Selan says this happens often.

One example of Selan's cases is a 9th grade girl at Animo Venice High School, referred to as "PC" for privacy reasons. PC is eligible for services under the category of "Other Health Impairment (OHI)," which is one of 14 categories of disabilities listed in America's, and California's, special education law.

PC is one of many students who started school without a necessary indivualized education program in place this school year. LAUSD twice denied PC her program, and Selan reported that the district did not respond until a complaint was filed with the State of California Department of Education Procedural Safeguards Referral Service.  Selan explained that his client's program was not properly in place, making it difficult for her to learn and recieve the correct aid in school.

"This is a typical case for me," said Selan.

California Watch reported that the attorneys and advocates who represent disabled students and their families said these children "receive few or no services and that the true service delivery rate in LA Unified...could be worse than records show."

Until recently California county mental health departments provided special education services, which has now been shifted to school districts. Under federal law, however, school districts must still address all students' disabilities.

The state Legislature recently agreed to support a plan that will eliminate a majority of state funding that assists schools in managing the behavior issues of special education students. Nearly all California schools unanimously opposed the plan. The governor has until the end of the week to sign or veto the measure, AB 644.

"I am very concerned about all of our programs, including special education, when you look at the kind of cuts that we have had to endure over the last few years," said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when asked about budge cuts affecting special education programs. "We are also going through the worst budget time in our history."

All LAUSD schools must have special education programs for their students. However, depending on funding and staffing, each school differs drastically. Overland Elementary has a team of people who work with their disabled students.

"We have roughly 6-10 students in a seperate classroom and they get different services for what they need," said Claudia Xom, Overland's secretary. "Then we have students that are in regular classrooms that can be pulled out, depending on what they need help with. We have a resource teacher."

Roscomare Road Elementary has a "pull-out" program where students go to a resource room with more one-on-one attention.

"We are not suffering from staffing shortages or funding problems," said a Roscomare representative.

Others, however, find that special education programs are still faltering.

Jaime Hernandez, the research director for the LAUSD Office of the Independent Monitor, explained to California Watch that among L.A. Unified's three goals for special education services, one provided a "a very low bar to meet."

The percentage of special education students in LAUSD has increased at the same time that special education funds decreased. This discrepancy puts pressure on the school district whether to use other funds for special education programs.

"A great majority of low income, under represented minority special needs children are not receiving the special needs services they deserve under the I.D.E.A," said Selan. "These kids are not receiving the proper education due to them under the law."

Editor's note: The original version of this article misstaed the number of students in L.A. Unified and the number of students with disabilities in the distrcts. The corrected numbers are now included above.

Reach staff reporter Brianna Sacks here.



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