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Black juveniles' rights to special education 'systemically' violated in DPS, state complaints officer says

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A state complaints officer for the Colorado Department of Education found “widespread” concerns across Denver Public Schools in the broad decision. This is a systematic violation of the special education rights of black male students enrolled in the district’s center for students with mental disorders.

The study by the State Department of Education involved 99 students who were served at a district school or an outside school’s specialty center contracted by the district between spring 2021 and 2022. Her 33-school center at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in Denver.

More than one-third of the center’s students are black boys, and 14% of the district’s enrollment is made up of black students, both boys and girls.

“Certainly, this is a disproportionate number of students,” said Pam Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver, which advocated for students with disabilities and filed a state complaint against the school district last spring. increase.

The organization also filed a federal civil rights allegation last year, alleging patterns of discrimination against black male students. A federal investigation is pending. The complaint seeks the Office of Civil Rights to order the DPS to abolish its Emotional Needs Center and rethink how it serves black students with disabilities.

The findings were not a complete surprise. Office of Exceptional Student Services at DPS.

“We hope that with these findings and the work that we hope will address the needs of all students with disabilities, we will be able to make significant improvements to the system as a whole.”

At issue is how the school district enforced its practice of placing students with known or suspected emotional disorders in separate classrooms. Advocates accused black male students of being disproportionately placed in such classrooms.

Advocacy Denver calls such placement “one of the most blatant examples of institutionalized racism within Denver Public Schools.” For years, black men have been overrepresented as having severe emotional disorders, and tend to be underrepresented in programs designed for children diagnosed with autism.

“Yes, there are children with severe mental disorders. In some cases, for some reason they’re bigger or scarier in that action.”

The school district had a plan to dismantle the center, called Project DISRUPT, but it was dismantled by new leadership of certain DPS departments. Bisceglia said the complaints were filed after years of trying to work with school districts through individual schools and administrative remedies.

From kindergarten to middle school, I have seen children suffering in emotional needs centers.

DPS’ Rottier-Lukens said one of the reasons Project DISRUPT was temporarily disbanded was because it recognized that there were several areas where students of color were not receiving equal service, and officials said they said it had begun an internal investigation into the matter.

“We are concerned about imbalances in many areas, not just programming emotional needs,” she said. being evaluated. Rottier-Lukens said the relief measures implemented by the district are in line with her DPS’s new strategic roadmap, which prioritizes “investigating and dismantling systems of oppression.”

According to Rottier-Lukens, the Emotional Needs Center allows staff to meet the needs of students who require a more restrictive environment.

“We are still obligated to provide that set of services, but we are moving to a more inclusive practice.”

During the pandemic, district teams have begun looking at where culture and biases may play a role in student assessment, she said. For example, some students have experienced a significant amount of trauma at home, which may have led to certain behaviors at school, suggesting that “students are actually coping with trauma in life.” It may have raised the awareness that a higher level of programming is required for

State Complaints Officers Find 5 Systematic Violations

The school district said it systematically failed to conduct a comprehensive needs assessment or make appropriate decisions about student eligibility for services under the federal education law.

In one case of suspected disability, the school district focused on the student’s behavioral concerns and did not assess the student’s cognitive ability despite low academic achievement test scores. Half of the surveyed assessments did not use various sources or information to make the assessment, as required by law. Complaints officers said the district also failed to ensure that evaluations were selected and carried out “so as not to result in discrimination on racial or cultural grounds.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Act also requires students to be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” but school districts fail to do so, it said. That means, for example, considering ancillary supports and services that enable students to be educated in regular classrooms. The school district also failed to enable students to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible, the lawsuit says.

The school district has not issued prior written notice to parents of changes in a child’s placement, has not verified that the teachers of the two center programs are appropriately licensed and qualified, and has not It was discovered that there had been a systematic failure to create, review, and amend individualized education plans. It reflects the needs of students.

Complaints officers have ordered a number of corrective actions, including training of all district special education leaders, leaders of schools with emotional needs programs, teachers working in programs, social workers, and school psychologists. . It lists specific timelines for corrective action, including compensation services for some students.

Denver Public Schools gives individual schools a great deal of autonomy. This is especially true for charter schools and innovation schools, which have several centers. Generally, schools can deny district training to their staff.

“The decision requires them to attend training,” Biseglia said. “When it comes to public law, this is where we don’t allow autonomy….we need to make sure we meet the various needs presented by students with disabilities.”

Rottier-Lukens said DPS is committed to providing special education staff with the training and support they need.

DPS, like school districts across the country, struggles to hire special education staff. She hopes the recently negotiated wage and salary increases, as well as a new commission aimed at setting standards on workload and caseload, will help. It facilitates ongoing support and coaching of educational staff and helps school districts “prudently plan for long-term systemic change.”

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