Formal complaints on behalf of the Seattle school district's 7,000 special-education students have doubled over the past two years. Parents, teachers and state officials blame a central administration they say has become indifferent to the long-troubled department.
Five years ago, a high-profile report found that Seattle’s public-school district was decades behind the rest of the country in serving students with disabilities.
In response, then-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson declared special education a major priority and announced sweeping changes.
Today, the problems are even worse.
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Six special-education directors — and three superintendents — have served since that 2007 report, discombobulating a growing department that now serves more than 7,000 students, one-seventh of the district’s overall enrollment.
The upheaval has spawned a culture of low expectations in which district officials seem to put avoiding lawsuits above engaging families, training staffers or educating children, according to dozens of parents, teachers, principals, advocates and experts.
And they’re failing even at that.
The annual amount Seattle Public Schools spends on special-ed-related suits has quadrupled since the report. Parents, employees and state agencies increasingly accuse the district of breaking federal laws governing how to serve students with disabilities ranging from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to deafness and learning struggles in specific subjects.
The critics disagree about the root of the problems but believe almost universally that officials are not taking them seriously.
“Of course leadership continuity would help. Of course training would help,” said Rick Minutoli, who left during the summer after six years leading the superintendent’s Special Education Advisory & Advocacy Council. “But these are just symptoms, not the disease. The disease is indifference. They’re suffering from indifference to special-ed students.”
Seattle is by no means the only school district struggling with special education. Most districts, especially in large cities, experience similar problems due to complex student needs, insufficient funding and a maze of strict laws. Test scores in particular are dismal everywhere, despite research suggesting that most special-ed students, if given the necessary accommodations, can do just as well as other kids.
Seattle special-ed students actually perform slightly better on state tests than disabled students in other districts, in part due to a handful of highly successful schools.
But on less explicit measures — following the law and delivering promised services to students, controlling costs and including special-ed students with others — advocates say Seattle lags far behind.
The problems are especially concerning because of the influence Seattle wields statewide, officials said.
“Seattle has a sort of greater responsibility to get this right. We can’t really afford for them not to get it,” said Stacy Gillett, the special-ed expert in the governor’s Office of the Education Ombudsman, who described Seattle’s system as broken.
Seattle’s new superintendent, José Banda, disputed that characterization but acknowledged tremendous gaps in special ed.
Banda pointed to a lack of leadership and said he hopes to pick a new director by early 2013. He has invited some parents and others to discuss the problems Wednesday in a focus group.
But even with the new administration, many critics worry the district will continue to fail the children who most need help.
“The parents are right,” School Board member Betty Patu said. “We’re not treating our special-ed kids the way we should. They’re not getting the attention they should. These parents have been yelling and screaming since I’ve been on the board, and I haven’t seen much change.”
“Everywhere, every day”
Special education began in 1975, when Congress gave disabled students the right to an education and gave school districts extra funding to provide it.
While the severely disabled attend class only with one another, most special-ed kids spend much of the day in mainstream classrooms and get pulled aside for individual tutoring, therapy or other services.
Legally binding Individualized Education Programs, crafted by the family and a team of specialists, govern the specific services that each student receives.
Those plans, called IEPs, are at the heart of many of the complaints about Seattle Public Schools.
Several parents accused officials of ignoring the plans or writing them based not on student needs but available resources — which is illegal.
In one case, Tim Nelson said his son Sam, who has Down syndrome, entered Green Lake Elementary with a suggested IEP from the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit.
But instead of accepting the plan, school officials said they didn’t have the resources for all of the services it described. So they cut out almost half the special instruction Sam was to receive.
Nelson now wonders how that has affected his son.
“The driving force in that decision was simply that the school didn’t have the staffing,” he said. “It wasn’t about my kid.”
Marni Campbell, the district’s last permanent special-ed executive director, said that should never happen and rarely does.
But Shelly Hurley, a seven-year special-ed teacher at Graham Hill Elementary, said it happens in Seattle Public Schools “everywhere and every day.” Often, she said, a school creates a good IEP but the central office won’t provide the resources to fulfill it.
“As special educators, it tears us up every single day because we want to give the best that we can every single day, and we can’t,” she said.
IEP compliance is a major issue for the district, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2011, that office ordered Seattle on 10 separate occasions to follow through on IEPs the district had failed to develop or implement.
Another issue is inappropriate spending. A state audit released in June found that Ballard High officials paid several teachers with special-ed money but asked them to teach both special and general education.
District officials called it an isolated incident.
But Kathie Newell, a special-ed teacher who has been with the district for nearly four decades, disagreed.
“Ballard got caught,” Newell said.
Many of the other problems are logistical — inadequately trained teachers, classrooms without materials, therapy services that are never delivered, phone calls that go unreturned for days, weeks or months.
District officials said lapses are inevitable but claimed things are improving with a new ombudsman.
Parents have also complained that special-ed classes have been relegated to a school play area, to a stage or, in the case of one post-school transition class, to the Northgate Mall food court. The classes are often moved around to satisfy the needs of everybody else, activists said.
Another theme is inconsistency. Many parents said special-ed programs look different at each school, in part due to the district’s practice of leaving decisions up to principals.
Navigating the labyrinth of programs is especially difficult for families of color and parents who don’t speak English. Many of them feel the district does not respect them, said Mia Franklin, a family support worker at The Arc of King County.
Tensions are intensified by disappointing outcomes.
Despite receiving extra time and other testing accommodations, Seattle special-ed students — many of whom have only minor disabilities — pass state exams about half as often as general education students.
They’re suspended from school more than three times as often.
The 2007 report was supposed to revitalize Seattle’s special ed, especially because it came as parents were getting more organized than ever.
The district-requested report criticized officials for putting too many disabled students in segregated classrooms. It prompted officials to announce that almost all special-ed students would go to the school they’d attend if they didn’t have a disability, with services coming to them, in traditional classes.
Parents, who had just formed the state’s second-ever Special Education PTSA, eagerly offered to help implement the new model, called Integrated Comprehensive Services, or ICS.
To some, that acronym has become a dirty word.
Officials squandered the opportunity on two fronts, critics say: They never genuinely engaged parents or teachers, and their model’s 2009 rollout lacked planning and training.
The most glaring problem may have been that the district just didn’t have the money for the changes vowed in response to the report.
The district never fully implemented the recommendations of the report, which even administration supporters like former Olympic View Elementary Principal Justin Baeder acknowledge was full of “stupid, unrealistic promises.”
The moves officials did make initially relied on millions of dollars from President Obama’s stimulus, which ran out two years later.
The still-rising costs — the district spent nearly $80 million on special ed last year, up from some $60 million before ICS — are squeezing the rest of the budget, School Board President Michael DeBell said.
Bridget Walker, a professor at Seattle University’s College of Education, said district officials didn’t properly plan the rollout.
“They let the water out of the dam before they built the levees downstream,” said Walker, who tells aspiring special-ed teachers to avoid Seattle. “It’s sad to watch.”
Campbell, the executive director during the rollout, defended it, pointing to a task force that planned the new model during a year of meetings.
David Riley, an author of the 2007 report, said logistical problems were unavoidable with such a complicated set of changes.
But the biggest problem was simple: The district never really trained teachers to use the model, critics said.
Shaun Rose, a Daniel Bagley Elementary parent, said her autistic son was among the students placed in a traditional classroom with a teacher who couldn’t serve him.
As a result, Rose said, Tenzin, then in kindergarten, felt ostracized and lost faith in his own ability to learn.
“It was terrible,” Rose said.
Campbell said teachers received extensive training, including up to 92 hours of work sessions for those most affected by the new model.
But the UW professor contracted to coordinate the training, Ilene Schwartz, now says it was inadequate.
When informed of Schwartz’s comments, Campbell blamed her.
“I guess that’s on Ilene,” she said.
Campbell, who did not have any direct special-ed experience before becoming executive director, took a different district position last summer, after two years on the job and in the middle of the rollout.
Since then, the job has bounced between three interim leaders: Becky Clifford, BiHoa Caldwell and, currently, John Thorp.
The turnover has deprived the department of a direction, teachers said.
Yantra Bertelli, a former Seattle special-ed aide and parent who recently moved to the Highline School District, called it a chaotic mess.
Teachers union Vice President Phyllis Campano, a former special-ed teacher at Pathfinder K-8, said staffers aren’t even sure if the district is still committed to ICS.
“Supposedly we’re getting rid of it,” said Campano, referring to a task force considering replacing ICS with a new model.
“What does that mean? Well, what did it mean when it was here? What was it? What is it?”
Feeling left out
As for the Special Education PTSA, the district has not engaged with it nearly as much as parents had hoped.
Several of the group’s board members quit in the middle of last school year. One, Julia Neander, decided to sell her house and move to Shoreline to get a better education for her 12-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy.
The president, Susan Sturms, made it through her term. But even she said it became clear the district wasn’t really listening.
“One of the purposes of the special-ed PTSA was to give families a place to voice their concerns and then to deliver that to the district in a constructive way — to be partners,” said Sturms, who has since decided to enroll her autistic son in private school. “In the absence of that partnership being embraced, I think the stage was set for a more hostile and combative approach.”
For many parents, that approach increasingly includes turning to state agencies or the courts.
Complaints about Seattle Public Schools to the Office of the Education Ombudsman have more than doubled over the past two years.
Last school year, that office received nearly as many special-ed complaints about Seattle — 70 — as it did about the next five most complained-about districts combined.
Lake Washington and Bellevue, each about half the size of Seattle, were second and third with 20 and 14 complaints, respectively. Issaquah also had 14, followed by Kent and Highline with 13 each.
Special-ed lawsuits have also become more common.
In the 2006-07 school year, just before the report came out, the district spent $57,002 in external costs on lawsuits, according to district records. In the 2010-11 school year, just after ICS was implemented, it spent $200,468.
Special ed has also taken up an increasing share of the time of the district’s in-house attorneys. One of those attorneys, and her roughly $100,000 salary, is now dedicated solely to special ed.
Last school year, parents sued the district eight times and took the district to court another 16 times on formal complaints.
“To me, that shows that we can do a better job of engaging parents,” Banda said.
“Not beyond repair”
Banda and other top officials agree the district has a lot of work to do.
The first step, most agree, is hiring an experienced and visionary leader.
Beyond that, many say the answers lie in the schools that are already succeeding. One that’s often cited is John Rogers Elementary, where longtime Principal Marcia Boyd said the staff makes it a point to include all students in every aspect of the school, including clubs. The staff doesn’t refer to special-ed students as disabled, Boyd said.
In general, advocates said, successful schools feature a principal who knows and respects the law, engages parents, holds high expectations for special-ed students and strongly believes in integrating them into the culture.
Spreading success will require a top-down directive, said Michelle Buetow, a former School Board candidate now serving as co-president of the Special Education PTSA.
“As a community, we need to commit to this,” she said.
Recently, there have been indications the district plans to do that.
Among the changes made in response to parent frustration and media scrutiny this fall, Banda has accelerated the search for a director, answered questions at a Special Education PTSA meeting and planned this week’s focus group.
That has many feeling optimistic.
Even Shelly Hurley, the teacher who accused her bosses of violating the law “every day and everywhere,” sees reason for hope.
“It’s broken, but not beyond repair,” she said of Seattle special education. “It’s like this old, decrepit building. I keep waiting for someone to realize that if we just put some work into it, if we just all work together, if we just fixed it up, we would have this well-run, beautiful thing.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.