Some Wake County students with learning disabilities are receiving as little as three hours of class instruction a month—and at times their "classrooms" are fast-food restaurants.
For the second consecutive year, the Wake County Public School System has violated state and federal law by failing to provide an adequate education for 164 middle and high school students with disabilities, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. These students had received long-term suspensions during the 2010–11 academic year. Suspended students with disabilities are entitled by law to "free, appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment."
This time, DPI is effectively calling school administrators to the principal's office by requiring Wake County Assistant Superintendent Marvin Connelly and Senior Director Bob Sturey to meet with it to review the infractions.
Kate Neale, a DPI consultant for dispute resolution, investigated three complaints brought by Advocates for Children's Services Staff Attorney Jason Langberg, who represents six students; Neale agreed with both of his claims:
In some cases, Wake schools offered lessons—mostly computerized—to students for just three hours per month; the "classes" were held at Hardee's, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway.
"It's hard for a lot of my kids to focus in a public library, much less a fast-food restaurant," Langberg says.
Test scores prove the point.
"The data from the first semester clearly indicates that a vast majority of students failed," Neale's DPI report states. "The evidence from grades and (End-of-Course) test results indicates that the students are not benefiting from the services delivered via the computer."
Just 15 of the 76 students who took EOCs earned satisfactory scores.
Investigators also found that "there is a group of students whose service time is so minimal per month (i.e. 3-8 hours) that on its face, it is found to be improbable, if not impossible, to conclude that (Wake County Schools) is insuring participation in the general curriculum."
Last year, DPI cited the district for the same reasons, and though it made some improvements, Neale says the results weren't good enough.
That 2010 report requires the district to correct nine performance measures, including tailoring an alternate special education program for each student and retaining and submitting detailed records and test scores for students receiving homebound instruction.
The school district responded by creating the Infinity program. Under Infinity, students attend class five days per week for three hours per day; lessons are computerized, and an instructor is present. Though the district's goal was to serve 60 students, only six participated, and funding hasn't been secured to expand this school year. Twelve other students with emotional disabilities were placed at a separate, full-time school. The remaining 101 were taught at home.
"It felt like a snail's pace, but that's kind of the nature of going through multiple administrative processes," Neale says, noting that the Wake County school board took months to approve a new approach. "At the end of the day, it didn't result in what we are looking for."
Wake is the only school district in the state to be cited since 2003, Neale says.
"We are coming back to the table with them rather than putting another corrective action in this report," she says. "All kinds of ideas are going to be thrown out on the table of how can we make this work for the kids."
Sturey, the senior director at Wake County Schools, says it's premature to offer solutions before next week's meeting with DPI.
"We have responded, and we have created options which were not available previously," he says, mentioning the Infinity program. "We are learning through what was provided this year and we'll make those adjustments."
If the school system doesn't improve, it risks losing control of state and federal grant funding, which would be directed by the State Educational Agency; the money could be withheld.
"I think it speaks to the leadership and the staff in the school system not taking the first report seriously enough," Langberg says. "The other thing it speaks to is that this is probably the most vulnerable population of students in the whole school district. They are the kids most in need of services, and they are getting the least."
Jennifer Mahan, director of government relations for the Autism Society of North Carolina, says the issue is not unique to Wake County.
"This does happen," she says. "If Wake County is being cited, it's going on in other areas as well."
At issue, Mahan says, is that schools have little incentive to identify students with disabilities. Educating these children is expensive, and the district has to pay specialists to teach. Meanwhile, parents often struggle to understand their children's legal rights.
Without specialized instruction, the students often have poor conduct, which can lead to yearlong out-of-school suspension.
"It's a bad situation all around," Mahan says. "Schools will ignore what parents request and ignore the needs of students with disabilities, and parents find themselves in the position of constantly telling schools how terrible things are."
Langberg says both Wake County Schools and DPI should share the blame for the problem. Wake is culpable for creating it, and DPI is guilty for failing to enforce the rules with enough vigor and consequence to make them effective, he says.
Langberg proposes that DPI hire a full-time compliance officer for Wake County and that the school district fund a school to teach suspended students with disabilities, complete with social workers, psychologists and behavior specialists.
"As the largest district in the state with such egregious violations, Wake County has proven they can't handle it on their own," Langberg says. "They really need a babysitter."
Students with disabilities risk falling behind in class, and asking them to learn outside the classroom only exacerbates the problem. These kids often get in trouble with police and end up depending solely on friends and family for support, she says.
"It's a quality-of-life issue. If you could live independently and do the things that other people do and have meaningful participation in society, would you choose that?" she asked. "We've essentially said to this group of kids, 'We don't think you are worth that,' which is horrifying."