Earlier this week, the Madison school board (MMSD) voted 4-3 to purchase a building for $4 million in order to house its intensive intervention programs for students with disabilities. I joined many other advocates, parents and people with disabilities to urge the board not to approve the purchase. Only a few staff testified in favor of the purchase. I also spent quite a bit of time before and after the vote communicating with a number of school board members in an effort to convince them why I and so many others thought this was such a bad idea.
The reasons I thought this purchase was such a bad idea are based on my nearly 25 years of representing children with disabilities in need of special education supports and services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts provide children with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrict environment (LRE) appropriate to their needs. Thus, the presumption for children with disabilities is that they will be educated in their neighborhood schools with appropriate supports and services, and only if that proves to be impossible, then the district may remove the child to more restrictive environments.
What I have noticed in my representation of children with disabilities in the past few years in MMSD is that the district is simply not providing enough sufficiently well trained staff to provide the supports and services for children with behavioral challenges to receive an appropriate education in their neighborhood schools. The number of cases in which I have been involved where this has been a problem has steadily increased to the point where I am now turning away cases as I can no longer handle the volume of potential clients that are coming my way. While that may be good for my business, it is sad evidence that the services and supports being provided by MMSD for children with disabilities are in a steady state of decline.
I have represented students with behavioral challenges both in and out of the current rented Olin Ave. site where these facilities are currently housed, and the common theme is that these students are not having their needs met in their neighborhood schools. Fortunately, in some of my cases, with persistent advocacy, I have been able to secure those services. Unfortunately, I have current cases where I am still seeking such services from the district on behalf of my clients, and parents are choosing to keep their children home rather than send them to schools where their children’s needs are not being met and their safety is compromised.
It makes matters worse when MMSD maintains a practice that forbids outside 3rd parties from providing services to children in school despite state guidance to the contrary. A parent has filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) over this policy and a decision on that complaint is expected in early January.
Since the IDEA requires delivery of FAPE in the LRE, investment in a restrictive facility should only be made upon completion of a thorough review of MMSD’s special education delivery system. MMSD has a long way to go to improve the way it supports students with behavioral challenges in neighborhood schools. This is evidenced, among other things, by MMSD’s failure to significantly reduce its reliance on seclusion and restraint of children with disabilities in our schools. Here is the data for the most recently available school years which shows that hundreds of MMSD students continue to suffer under these aversive techniques thousands of times.
- 2017-18: 540 students secluded &/or restrained, 354 of whom have disabilities
- 2016-17: 529 students secluded &/or restrained, 334 of whom have disabilities
- 2017-18: 1,956 incidents of restraint and 1,766 incidents of seclusion
- 2016-17: 2,335 incidents of restraint and 2,289 incidents of seclusion
Moreover, MMSD continues to suspend children with disabilities in a highly disproportional manner. The most recent data from the 2017-18 school year reveals:
- Significant disproportionality for students with disabilities who make up 15% of the student population but received 54% of the out of school suspensions (a rise from 50% the previous 2 years).
Of course, the failure of MMSD to successfully work with students with disabilities results in disproportionately low graduation rates. The most recent data from the 2017-2018 school year reveals that:
- While 86% of regular education students graduate in 4 years, only 57% of students with disabilities do so.
The good news is that MMSD is scheduled to conduct a top to bottom review and evaluation of its special education program in the coming year. The question about how and where to best educate children with behavioral challenges should be a key component of that evaluation. Thus, making a multi-million dollar decision to purchase the building to house these services was premature given that the evaluation may suggest other and better ways to provide the services and supports these children need.
Now that the decision to purchase the building has been made, the real question is what to do going forward. The school board must insist on engaging in the upcoming special education evaluation in an honest soul searching manner. To do so, it must retain expertise from outside the district. Fortunately, there are many fine experts at the UW-Madison who can do this, so it should not be difficult to retain such an expert. That expert must not only examine data, but actually observe what is going on in our school buildings, in both neighborhood schools and segregated environments such as the intensive intervention programs. Needless to say, the expert hired by MMSD must also get input from staff, students and parents.
Moreover, the board’s charge to that expert in conducting the evaluation must focus on how we can improve supports and services to students and staff so virtually all of Madison’s students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive environments. Research shows that providing quality inclusive education benefits students with and without disabilities in both academic and behavioral performance.
In my conversations with Madison school board members, including those who voted in favor of the $4 million building purchase, most expressed agreement that MMSD needs to do a better job supporting the ability of students to thrive in inclusive environments. The question is whether a majority of the board will choose to engage in a serious independent evaluation of the district’s special education program, and put at least as much money as it did into the building purchase, into improving the services and supports necessary to do so. If the district can find $4 million for a building to house 36 students with disabilities, how much money will it spend to improve the quality of inclusive education for the thousands of students with disabilities in their neighborhood schools?
For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.