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Books and ABC blocks on a classroom desk (via Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

Two Virginia lawmakers are proposing sweeping measures to improve the state’s provision of special education services as criticisms from parents and the federal government over Virginia’s compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act continue.

Sponsored by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, the proposals would create a statewide system to oversee the development and use of individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with special needs, require more training for educators about how to provide inclusive special education instruction, set up eight regional “special education parent support centers” and provide additional specialists to divisions.

“It’s no secret we are failing our students with disabilities in Virginia,” said Coyner during a Jan. 30 hearing on the legislation.

Federal law requires states to provide all students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education.” Among the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is that schools must offer an IEP and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” according to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“This bill ensures that there is monitoring of this civil rights law at the state level, and it’s very necessary,” said Kandise Lucas, a special education advocate, during a recent House Education subcommittee meeting.

Virginia has almost 181,000 students receiving special education services this school year, an increase of nearly 7,000 students from a year ago. But the state has struggled to meet the demands of students with disabilities.

Virginia has repeatedly been criticized by the federal government for problems with providing special education services. A June 2020 report by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs determined that Virginia “does not have the procedures and practices that are reasonably designed to enable the state to exercise general supervision over all educational programs for children with disabilities.”

The Virginia Department of Education disputed some of the findings, saying the federal office included “factual inaccuracies.”

However, in a Feb. 17, 2023 letter from OSEP, the office identified “significant new or continued areas of concerns” with how the state was complying with supervision, dispute resolution and confidentiality requirements in IDEA. In particular, it concluded Virginia “does not have procedures and practices that are reasonably designed to ensure a timely resolution process” for complaints and said at least five districts were not adhering to IDEA regulations.

Individual school divisions have also been faulted by federal officials. In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, had failed (link added by FFXnow) to provide thousands of students with disabilities the education they were entitled to receive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State reviews have also echoed many federal criticisms. In 2020, the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission identified major shortcomings in the state’s provision of special education services, including low-quality IEPs, a lack of knowledge among educators about how to effectively support students with disabilities and shortfalls in the Virginia Department of Education’s oversight of local divisions.

Researchers who reviewed 90 randomly selected IEPs found about half lacked goals for academic progress or improved functioning, which are required by federal law. About 37% of parents believed the services outlined in their child’s IEP were only “somewhat” or “not at all appropriate.”

A third of the special education directors interviewed by JLARC said only half or fewer administrators and general education teachers in their division had the knowledge or skills necessary to support students with disabilities. However, researchers pointed out that state regulations only required “minimal” training in special education for administrators.

Overall, the report observed Virginia students with severe, less common or multiple disabilities graduated at a rate lower than those with more common disabilities. Additionally, it found a persistent shortage of special education teachers, with many school divisions relying on underprepared teachers to fill gaps. Read More

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Fairfax County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio presents a proposed ESSER III spending plan to the school board (via FCPS/YouTube)

The influx of federal money that has helped buoy Fairfax County Public Schools and other school systems around the U.S. as they emerged from the first year of the Covid pandemic is starting to run out.

Facing a September 2024 deadline, FCPS officials presented a plan to the school board last Thursday (April 27) for spending approximately $57.5 million remaining from the $188.8 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) awarded by the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021.

The biggest item in the plan is $22.2 million to extend contracts for special education teachers that compensate them for an additional 30 minutes of work per day, which FCPS says “is imperative” to attracting and retaining those faculty members.

“Our special education students were some of the students most impacted during the pandemic, and as a result, our special education teacher workload has significantly increased as they work very hard to meet the needs of those students,” FCPS Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio told the school board.

FCPS has 27,839 students with disabilities, who make up 15.5% of its enrollment, state data says. Based on data from before the pandemic, a report released last fall found significant disparities in test scores and discipline between those students and their peers not in special education.

In December, a U.S. Department of Education investigation determined that FCPS had failed to provide adequate support to special education students when it shifted to virtual learning early in the pandemic.

The proposed ESSER plan includes nearly $200,000 for compensatory services that FCPS is required to provide under its agreement with the DOE. The funds cover staffing as well as legal fees needed to reimburse for parents “for external educational costs incurred by them due to the pandemic-related school closures.”

When at-large school board member Abrar Omeish asked whether it was appropriate to use the funds on “trying to clean something up,” Presidio said the DOE confirmed it’s “an allowable expense” to address learning losses — one of four categories covered by ESSER.

While the spending plan mostly focuses on existing expenses, like a school health officer and the return of an expanded summer learning program, FCPS has proposed two new “projects”: $1.2 million to upgrade its website, and $250,000 to contract outside agencies that will work with chronically absent students.

About 15% of FCPS students missed 10% of school days or more during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

“Essentially, we’re identifying individuals that can connect with the student and connect with the family, understand the root causes of why that student is not able to attend school,” Presidio said. “It might be a health issue, it might be a transportation issue, it might be a work issue and a scheduling issue, and really help try to resolve those for the student and family as best as possible.”

He said counselors, teachers, social services and other school workers will stay involved, but the chronic absenteeism provider will have more capacity for the “labor-intensive” task of working with individual families.

“We need somebody who’s able to actually do those home visits and really coordinate and kind of case manage the services for the student and to be able to spend time with the family and student to understand what those root causes are,” he said.

Some school board members expressed concern about the amount of ESSER funds going to staff positions, from social workers to academic tutors, given that the money will run out after the 2023-2024 school year.

Presidio noted that some positions previously covered by ESSER have been phased out, like social distancing monitors, while other expenses, like additional English as a Second Language workers, have been incorporated into FCPS’ regular budget.

However, he acknowledged that in many cases, decisions will need to be made about “can we afford to retain any of these positions or do we lose them all.”

The proposed ESSER budget for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, is scheduled to be approved by the school board on May 11. FCPS then hopes to get the VDOE’s approval by May 31.

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Glen Forest Elementary School (via Google Maps)

(Updated at 11:50 p.m.) An instructional assistant at Glen Forest Elementary School in Bailey’s Crossroads was allegedly seen assaulting a student with disabilities last month.

Fairfax County Police Department detectives served a warrant for simple assault to Meredith Capets, a 36-year-old Alexandria resident, after she turned herself in at the Adult Detention Center last night (Tuesday), the department reported this morning.

According to police, another Glen Forest employee saw Capets assault the student on Dec. 8.

“The employee immediately reported the assault to school administrators,” the FCPD said. “Officers were notified of the incident that evening. Detectives conducted numerous interviews.”

Detectives with the department’s child abuse squad obtained the warrant yesterday. After being served, Capets was released on an unsecured bond.

Capets was placed on administrative leave “immediately” after the school learned about the assault, Glen Forest principal Diane Herndon-Wilson said in a message to families.

“As principal, my primary responsibility is the safety and security of everyone who enters the doors of Glen Forest,” Herndon-Wilson wrote. “This is something I take very seriously. As educators, we are entrusted with the wellbeing of the children in our care every day. It deeply affects us when someone appears to have broken that trust.”

The FCPD says anyone with additional information about the case can contact its Major Crimes Bureau at 703-246-7800, option 3, or submit an anonymous tip via Crime Solvers by phone (1-866-411-TIP) or online.

This is the fifth incident reported in 2022 where an FCPS employee allegedly assaulted a student with disabilities. An assistant at Dogwood Elementary School was arrested for an assault in September, and a Marshall High School special education teacher was arrested last month for assaulting a student twice.

School bus workers who allegedly assaulted students in Fort Belvoir and Vienna last year are no longer employed by FCPS.

Photo via Google Maps

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Face masks (via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

When Fairfax County Public Schools resumes classes in January, students and staff may once again be required to wear face masks — but only around students with disabilities who request the accommodation.

Virginia settled a lawsuit last week with parents of 12 immunocompromised students who argued that the end of Covid-related face mask requirements in schools violated their right to a free, appropriate public education.

As part of the settlement, the state agreed that, if requested by a parent, schools must allow “some amount of required masking as a reasonable modification” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Virginia Department of Education was directed to send guidance on “peer masking” to the schools attended by students in the lawsuit, including Stenwood Elementary School in Dunn Loring.

“The health and well-being of our students and staff remain a top priority. FCPS is aware of this settlement and is currently assessing how it impacts operations,” FCPS said in a statement.

The settlement only directly applies to the specific schools attended by the plaintiffs’ kids, who have asthma, cystic fibrosis and other conditions that put them at high risk of getting severely sick if they contract COVID-19.

However, when announcing the settlement on Dec. 12, the ACLU of Virginia — one of several organizations representing the parents — expressed hope that it will signal to other schools that they should consider requiring masks when needed for students with disabilities as well.

“We’re hopeful that every school in Virginia will view this settlement as a sign that they should make similar accommodations for their students, even if they are not part of the case,” ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Eden Heilman said.

The complaint was filed in federal court in Charlottesville on Feb. 1, shortly after Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in schools took effect.

FCPS and six other school districts sued Youngkin in an effort to block the order, arguing that universal masking was still necessary as the country was just starting to exit the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases of the pandemic.

That lawsuit was rendered moot once a bill requiring schools to allow parents to opt their kids out of wearing a mask became law on Feb. 16. FCPS made masks optional on March 1, though the school board filed a brief supporting the families who sued.

Acknowledging an initial court ruling from March, the settlement says the state law and executive order don’t prohibit schools from considering and fulfilling mask requirement requests to accommodate students with disabilities.

Under the agreement, schools are expected to look at alternatives, such as ventilation improvements or social distancing, before requiring masks. They must also “take every reasonable step” to ensure a student whose parents don’t want them to wear a mask doesn’t have to.

The settlement also required the state to pay $295,000 to cover the suing parents’ legal fees.

“This settlement is a step toward righting a wrong,” Tasha Nelson, one of the parents, said. “Children like mine should not be told they cannot participate safely in school or that they have to be segregated. They have a right to the same education as every other child. As adults, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we include everyone in our decisions and come up with solutions that provide equity in school.”

While Covid cases haven’t gotten close to last winter’s levels, they have been climbing over the past few weeks, with the Fairfax Health District averaging 260.3 cases per day for the preceding week, as of yesterday (Monday).

FCPS has reported a total of 5,969 cases among students and staff since this school year began on Aug. 22 — exceeding the 3,669 cases seen over the same time frame in 2021. Students are now on winter break until Jan. 3.

Photo via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

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George C. Marshall High School in Idylwood (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A special education teacher at Marshall High School in Idylwood has been arrested for allegedly assaulting a student more than once, Fairfax County police announced Friday night (Dec. 2).

Two different employees reported seeing Amy Bonzano, a 50-year-old Falls Church resident, assaulting a student with disabilities, according to the Fairfax County Police Department.

The first report came on Sept. 28 from an employee who “immediately” alerted school administrators, police said. The school’s subsequent investigation uncovered an earlier incident shared by a teacher who “had observed Bonzano physically assault the student approximately six months earlier,” according to the FCPD’s news release.

“That incident was not reported at the time it occurred,” the police department said. “Our detectives were notified on Oct. 13 and assumed the investigation.”

After conducting “numerous” interviews, detectives obtained and served two summons on Friday with warrants for simple assault, a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia that carries a potential jail sentence of six months.

Listed as an intellectual disabilities teacher on the website for Marshall, which enrolls 272 students who receive special education services, as of the 2021-2022 school year, Bonzano has been placed on administrative leave, as has the teacher who didn’t initially report the assault they witnessed, principal Jeffrey Litz said in a message to the school community.

Dear Marshall HS Families,

I am deeply saddened tonight to inform you that Fairfax County police have announced the arrest of a special education teacher at Marshall High School who has been charged with assaulting a student. When the alleged incident occurred on September 28th, we contacted the family and the proper authorities, and placed the staff member on administrative leave. As the police reference, the investigation resulted in a staff member sharing that they had witnessed a similar incident six months earlier but did not report it. I want you to know that the person who did not report the previous incident was immediately placed on leave.

As principal, my primary responsibility is the safety and security of everyone who enters the doors of Marshall High School. This is something I take very seriously. As educators, we are entrusted with the wellbeing of the children in our care every day. It deeply affects us when someone appears to have broken that trust. Please contact Fairfax County Police Major Crimes Bureau if you have any information you would like to share at 703-246-7800, option 4.

I am here to answer your questions or concerns, and to support students in any way they need.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey D. Litz

The FCPD says anyone with information related to this case or other possible incidents can contact its detectives at 703-246-7800, option “4.” The department also accepts anonymous tips through Crime Solvers by phone (1-866-411-TIPS) and online.

Bonzano is the second FCPS employee to get arrested for assaulting a student with disabilities this year. In September, an instructional assistant at Dogwood Elementary School in Reston was arrested when two teachers witnessed an alleged assault.

The news of Bonzano’s arrest came the same week that FCPS announced an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education requiring it to compensate special education students for services it failed to provide during the shift to remote learning earlier in the pandemic.

FCPS is in the midst of reviewing its special education program after a recent report indicated that students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and generally struggle more academically compared to their peers.

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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools failed to give needed educational services to “thousands” of students with disabilities when it pivoted to virtual learning due to COVID-19 in 2020, federal officials say.

FCPS must compensate all affected students for the lost services as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, which was investigating reports that the school system had violated students’ right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” Education Department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a news release announcing the agreement yesterday.

FCPS said in a statement that it will convene meetings with all current and former students who attended during the “pandemic period” from April 14, 2020 to June 16, 2022 to discuss their Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 plans.

IEPs are written plans that establish services and academic goals for students in special education. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that get federal funding and requires public school districts to provide a FAPE.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened investigations into FCPS and districts in Indiana, Seattle and Los Angeles in January 2021, citing local news reports where parents said schools delayed or neglected to deliver the specialized services their kids need.

While acknowledging the pandemic’s “unique challenges,” which prompted widespread school closures in an effort to limit Covid’s spread, OCR says that doesn’t relieve schools of their responsibility to educate students in accordance with their specific needs.

After going fully virtual in spring 2020, FCPS started reintroducing in-person classes that October, but it didn’t bring back all students, five days a week, until August 2021.

Though FCPS attempted to address learning losses with expanded summer programs, OCR reports that the school system “inappropriately reduced and limited services” to students with disabilities, failed to “accurately or sufficiently” track the services it was providing, and “refused even to entertain compensatory education for services it did not or could not provide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The evidence strongly suggests that appropriate remedial services still remain unavailable, as a practical matter, to the many thousands of students with disabilities in the Division who may need them,” OCR said in a letter to Superintendent Michelle Reid.

As of this past February, FCPS had only provided recovery services to 1,070 students with IEPs and eight students with Section 504 plans, OCR said. 15.5% of the over 180,000 students who attend FCPS this school year have disabilities, according to state data.

Under the agreement, FCPS must get OCR’s approval for plans to compensate students, appoint an administrator to implement those plans, notify parents and guardians, and develop an electronic system by Jan. 17 to track which students need additional services and what accommodations are provided.

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, FCPS remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss,” the school system said. “FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.” Read More

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A Fairfax County police car with lights flashing (file photo)

An assistant at Reston’s Dogwood Elementary School has been arrested in connection with assaulting a special needs student earlier this month, according to police.

Fairfax County police charged Mark MacDicken, 60, of Centreville, with the assault of the juvenile student on Sept. 16. McDicken has worked at the school for roughly 10 years, police said.

Two teachers reportedly witnessed McDicken assaulting the student when they walked into their classroom.

He was charged with assault.

McDicken has been put on administrative leave while the case is underway, Dogwood Elementary School Principal Kate Beckner said in a message to families.

“I understand this will come as a shock to our community,” she wrote. “The primary responsibility for anyone who works in education is the safety and wellbeing of children. When that trust appears to be broken, it affects us all.”

Beckner’s full letter to the community, shared with FFXnow by Fairfax County Public Schools, is below.

Dear Dogwood Families,

I am deeply saddened this morning to share the news of a situation at Dogwood ES involving an instructional assistant.

Fairfax County Police will be sharing with the community today that an instructional assistant has been arrested and charged with assaulting a student in our school. Two staff members who allegedly witnessed the incident immediately contacted administration and we took swift action to contact the authorities. The staff member is currently on administrative leave while this case is resolved.

I understand this will come as a shock to our community. The primary responsibility for anyone who works in education is the safety and wellbeing of children. When that trust appears to be broken, it affects us all.

These situations can be upsetting and prompt a variety of emotions. When engaging in conversations with your child, listen calmly and reassuringly, and share a message that you are someone your child can talk to, even in challenging situations. If you have counseling questions or concerns, please reach out to our counselors, Angel Evins and Jen Franconeri at 703-262-3100. Please also contact Fairfax County Police Major Crimes Bureau if you have any information you would like to share at 703-246-7800, option 4.

I am here to answer your questions or concerns, and to support students in any way they need.

Sincerely,

Kate Beckner

Principal

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Fairfax County Public Schools will end the use of seclusion at Key Center School in Franconia and Kilmer Center in Dunn Loring with the 2022-2023 school year (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County Public Schools will officially end the use of seclusion as a tool for managing student behavior when the next school year begins on Aug. 22.

The practice of confining a student to a room is already prohibited in most schools, but the Fairfax County School Board approved an update on March 10 that expands the ban to include the Key Center School, Kilmer Center, and private day and residential schools, starting with the 2022-2023 school year.

Key Center in Franconia serves students with intellectual disabilities, severe disabilities, and autism, while Kilmer Center, located in Dunn Loring, is for students aged 5 to 21 with severe disabilities and autism. Their enrollment for the current school year is 60 and 62 students, respectively.

Adopted without discussion as part of the board’s consent agenda, the updated policy follows through on the commitment that FCPS made in November to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of six students with disabilities and advocacy organizations.

As part of that settlement, FCPS also agreed to a blanket prohibition on all physical restraints “that create a high risk of injury, including prone, supine, and floor restraints and chokeholds.”

The school system’s existing policy, which took effect on Dec. 17, 2020, banned all mechanical and pharmacological, or medication-based, restraints. The revised version more explicitly states that this includes restraints that put students on the floor or in prone or supine positions.

It also prohibits the “use of restraint or seclusion in any manner that is life-threatening, restricts breathing, or restricts blood flow to the brain.”

FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult says the school system anticipates “the impact of these changes to be minimal,” since the use of seclusion and restraints was mostly phased out during the 2020-2021 school year.

“We do anticipate some adjustments for our current students receiving services through private day and residential schools, but we are in close communication with those sites regarding this policy,” Moult said.

According to Moult, 139 students are currently enrolled in public day programs and 233 in private day or residential schools that have contracts with FCPS, as of December of 2021.

The updated policy states that FCPS will not contract with private schools that permit restraint and seclusion once the 2022-2023 school year starts, but students currently placed at schools that use those practices can choose to stay there at a student, parent, or guardian’s request.

FCPS started overhauling its restraint and seclusion policy after the radio station WAMU reported in March 2019 that the school system was significantly underreporting how often the practices were being used on children with disabilities. Some incidents resulted in injuries, hospitalization and students leaving their schools.

The report prompted an investigation by FCPS and the lawsuit filed in October 2019 by families of students with disabilities, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, and CommunicationFIRST.

Since then, FCPS says it has been regularly updating school staff on “proactive practices to reduce behavior concerns” using MANDT, Professional Crisis Management, and Ukeru — professional development programs that provide crisis management training focused on de-escalation and trauma-informed techniques.

With the updated policy, the school system also says staff will be trained to not seek assistance from a school resource officer in a situation requiring a student to be restrained unless no other certified personnel are available and a police officer’s involvement is necessary “to prevent imminent serious injury.”

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Entrance of Fairfax County Public Schools' administrative headquarters
Fairfax County Public Schools’ administrative headquarters in Merrifield (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools has found savings to provide a second year of expanded summer learning programming.

The $12.5 million needed for the enhanced summer school will come from reserve staffing funds that went unused due to FCPS’ decreased student enrollment, according to the district.

“We realize that…access to summer programming is important for all of our students,” Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said at a school board meeting on Thursday (March 10). “It is a game-changer.”

The funds will be officially approved at a future meeting as part of a third-quarter review of the fiscal year 2022 budget, which spans from July 1, 2021 to June 30 of this year.

Intended to offset learning losses attributed to the shift to virtual classes during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, FCPS expanded its summer school offerings last year to accommodate more than 35,000 students — 10 times the number served in a typical year.

However, staffing shortages for the Extended School Year program, which serves students with disabilities, forced FCPS to delay classes and left many families frustrated.

Corbett-Sanders suggested summer enrollment was adversely affected because of how FCPS handled the situation. She said FCPS expects there will be increased interest in this year’s offerings, which includes a return of the Extended School Year program for an anticipated 3,308 students in special education.

FCPS says special education teachers who participate in the ESY program will receive a flat rate of $68 per hour, with consulting and homebound teachers getting a compensation rate of $50 per hour.

The largest program will be Summer Olympians Aspire and Reach (SOAR), which is expected to have an estimated 13,400 students. The program teaches kindergarten through sixth-grade students math and literacy skills to prepare them for the upcoming school year.

Other planned programs include a credit recovery academy for high school students, an online campus with virtual classes, enrichment programs, Young Scholars, Bridge to Kindergarten for children who did not attend preschool, and a summer recovery academy for students with disabilities.

Overall, FCPS anticipates that more than 33,000 students will enroll in a summer learning program this year.

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The Fairfax County School Board discusses a first-year interim report of a two-year review of the district’s special education program (via FCPS)

Fairfax County Public Schools is conducting the first public review of its special education services since 2013 after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional learning with remote classes that disproportionately affected students with disabilities.

Presented to the school board at a work session yesterday (Tuesday), findings from the first year of the review highlight families’ frustrations with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and suggest the school system disproportionately disciplines special education students, especially Black and Hispanic children.

Requested by the school board in December 2019 and officially launched on Nov. 10, 2020, the interim report states explicitly that the review “does not address special education programming during COVID-19.”

The contracted firm — the Arlington-headquartered nonprofit American Institutes for Research — said FCPS decided to focus on collecting data for normal school operations.

On the positive side, surveys of both staff and parents found that 87% of the over 18,500 parents who responded “agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school,” frequently noting the caring nature of instructional staff and expressing appreciation for employees.

The review showed that, from 2016-2021, FCPS had about nine or 10 students per special education teacher, a lower ratio than the state average of 15-to-1. The district has also taken steps to improve communication with school staff, including by appointing an assistant ombudsman for special education in 2019, the report said.

While researchers stressed that this is an initial update and the conclusions aren’t final, the report found several areas of concern:

  • Families voiced a lack of transparency and accountability about Individualized Education Program goals and progress
  • Suspension and expulsion rates were higher for certain races than others
  • Parents suggested that the IEP process for getting student input on post-high school transition plans “may be driven by compliance rather than student needs”
  • Novice teachers lack preparation to work with students with disabilities, an area that researchers are investigating further
  • Staff reported feeling overwhelmed by case management, paperwork, and meeting duties, affecting FCPS’ ability to effectively recruit and retain teachers
  • The amount and quality of communication between parents and staff varies by school
  • A sampling showed more than a third of IEPs had no written evidence of parent input

“‘It’s so sad.’ That’s what I wrote all over this document,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

An interim report for a special education review compared suspension rates for students with disabilities and other students (via American Institutes of Research/FCPS)

In addition to discussing how to address the issues raised by the report, school board member after school board member raised concerns about the review process, urging researchers to be specific in their recommendations by looking at subgroups and other factors. Officials suggested broad takeaways could dilute matters and not help families.

“My fear overall about this is that this is a one-sized-fits-all special ed audit,” Laura Jane Cohen, the board’s Springfield District representative, said.

Researchers responded that they used a random sampling to collect their preliminary findings. They also noted constraints with interviewing kids, while expressing a willingness to consider changes.

The firm said it will go more in-depth during the second year of a $375,000-plus contract issued in October 2020.

FCPS Auditor General Esther Ko reminded the board that it has a fixed contract and the firm will work at no cost for three more months after its second year. If the board wants more changes, though, it could amend the contract or open another bidding process to look at other topics.

The board requested that Ko to evaluate possible changes to the review with American Institutes for Research for its audit committee to go over later.

Currently set to be completed next summer, the review will make recommendations to FCPS for how to improve services for students with disabilities and their families.

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