The Shawnee Mission School District must submit an action plan to the state this month after an investigator found the district did not provide the required amount of federally required services for some individual disabled or gifted students earlier this school year.
The Kansas State Department of Education began investigating a complaint regarding special education practices in the district in November, when a special education advocate and parent filed a report through a formal state process for those who believe public agencies are not in compliance with federal or state laws.
Federal law requires that students with disabilities or children determined to be gifted receive a certain number of specialized service minutes outlined in a legally binding plan approved by school staff and parents each year.
But the state’s investigation, completed and sent to the district on Dec. 22, found that at certain schools small numbers of students hadn’t received the full amount of extra services federal law guarantees them. In other cases, students had received those services later than school procedures allow for.
In at least one case, a special education teacher was not licensed for the position she holds.
The violations substantiated by the state investigator involved fewer than than 30 students, said Shawnee Mission Director of Special Education Jackie Chatman. In Shawnee Mission, 2,600 students receive services for disabilities and 1,050 have been identified as gifted.
In her report, investigator Diana Durkin cited several reasons for these violations, including the resignation or absence of staff, lag time as the district worked to hire special education employees and, in some cases, the unanticipated enrollment of special needs children.
Chatman said that hiring special education professionals has been a challenge in Kansas and across the nation.
“Some of it is the level of expertise that people need to have right now and that’s where the shortages are,” Chatman said. “There is a greater demand than there is a supply for that type of resource. I’m not going to blame it on any one person or any thing.”
In the report, Durkin said she found no evidence to suggest any district-level policy or practice resulted in missed service minutes. Other issues raised in the complaint — including concerns that the districts gives more support and resources to more affluent schools — were not substantiated.
“Changes in staff have — along with the ebb and flow of the student population — resulted in some service minutes not being provided to students,” she wrote.
Shawnee Mission Schools spokesperson Shawna Samuel said in a statement that the district “cooperated fully” with the state investigation and would review the report.
The statement read:
“The district is pleased that the thorough investigation rejected the complainant’s broad allegations, finding no ‘evidence of systemic actions, policy or practices on the part of the district that were purposefully designed to undermine the ability of school-level professionals to perform their duties.’
“At the district, we work tirelessly to comply with applicable special education requirements. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, circumstances beyond our control interfere. We will work with KSDE to meet the requirements outlined in the investigator’s report, most of which involve individual or a small number of students. In every instance, we strive to provide the best education possible to all students, including students receiving special education services.”
In several cases, Durkin found, more violations did not occur because groups of educators covered scheduling shifts of someone who had vacated a position or formed small groups to ensure that services were provided to kids.
As of the time of the report, current autism coaches were providing services until a new autism coach could be hired and teachers of gifted students burdened with large caseloads were using classroom or personal time to keep up with special education paperwork.
“That is the way in education that we deal with those types of issues,” Chatman said. “The school community wraps around what needs to occur.”
Chapman said that the district is already working on plans to change the schedules of teachers who support gifted students so that they have more time to for students.
Liz Meitl, a doctoral student in the University of Kansas Special Education Department who originally filed the complaint on Nov. 6, said she shared her concerns with the current administration before she filed her report.
She said the issues outlined in her complaint were areas of concern shared with her by teachers, parents and paraeducators. Special education issues have already emerged as an area patrons would like to see a new superintendent and incoming board members prioritize.
“I want the new school board and the new superintendent to come in knowing this is a place that needs attention,” Meitl said this week. “I want 1,000 spotlights shining on this issue.”
According to the report, the district must provide a written statement assuring state officials it will comply with requirements, make a plan to give students the services they need, and develop guidance on how schools should handle obstacles to providing timely services, such as when special education teachers leave their jobs or when a student transfers or moves.
Chatman said Wednesday that the district had already fulfilled some of its requirements and was meeting this week to discuss completing additional plans.