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Brookhaven School District cited for special education problems — MDE reports: Schools not following the law

The Brookhaven School District’s failure to follow special education laws was revealed publicly in a contract hearing last week, but state investigators have criticized the district for many of the same problems before.

Investigative reports obtained by The Daily Leader show the Mississippi Department of Education in 2016 and 2012 found Brookhaven schools failed to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as administrators ignored rules for extending services, did not properly monitor or document educational or behavioral goals and were generally not knowledgeable about special needs students’ education plans or goals. Despite MDE requiring the district to correct the problems and train all personnel as the result of both investigations, school personnel testified to similar problems in the special education program last week during a contract hearing for Brookhaven Elementary School Principal Shelley Riley.

“Every single school should be serving those children — we’ve had 40 years of law to help our school districts understand how to provide services for those students,” said Lindsay Jones, vice president, chief policy and advocacy officer for the Learning Disabilities Association of America. “There are 6.5 million children in the nation with disabilities, and they have just as much potential and promise as other children.”

MDE records show the agency’s Office of Special Education Team conducted an on-site investigation in Brookhaven on Sept. 6, 2016 by interviewing numerous teachers and administrators and performing a classroom observation in response to a complaint filed by Falana McDaniel over the treatment of her son. McDaniel declined to comment on the reports.

The investigation found the district failed to comply with the guidelines for Extended School Year support services to McDaniel’s son — identified in the reports as “M.M.” — by denying the services after switching his Algebra I credit to occupational diploma standards and using the switch as “extenuating circumstances” to pass him to the 11th grade. The district’s documentation indicated M.M. qualified for the services regardless, but did not inform the student’s mother until June 6, 2016.

The district could not produce documentation to prove ESY services were ever discussed in meetings on the student’s Individualized Education Plan, and district special services director Brandy Myers was unaware M.M. failed Algebra I and missed the credit. The student’s mother told Myers about her son’s failing grade on July 25, 2016, and Myers directed the algebra teacher to provide credit recovery — the resulting grade of 74 violated the district’s grading policy, which requires a 65 for any class passed by credit recovery.

MDE chided the district in its report, pointing out, “ESY services are not provided to ensure that a student passes a class, nor should services be used to determined promotion and retention.”

The investigation also found Brookhaven schools failed to provide M.M. with transition services focusing on academic and functional improvement. The report says the student’s training and education goals were not measurable, and investigators marked “no” on seven of eight questions on a checklist that indicates whether or not a student’s IEP is properly tailored to the student’s needs.

The report went on to accuse the district of rubber-stamping the student’s IEP, saying goals did not appear to be updated annually, as the “the wording was exactly the same for the aforementioned school years.” The report also found required reports undated, courses of study not aligned with student goals and no math courses listed.

District personnel testified to similar problems last week during the Riley hearing, when Riley’s defense attorney, Lisa Ross, questioned the use of the Literacy-Based Promotion Act’s good cause exemption to pass a special needs student who failed the third-grade reading gate. Testimony indicated the district did not adhere to requirements of parental involvement throughout the process, and deputy superintendent Rod Henderson — who called the meeting where the student’s exemption was granted — said he was unfamiliar with the student’s IEP.

“It’s meant to be a proactive, ongoing process, and that’s what the law requires schools to do — it shouldn’t just start or end with an IEP meeting,” said Shawn Ullman, senior director of national initiatives for The Arc, a national advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that has eight chapters in Mississippi. “Kids will grow, or their medications will change, or they will go to a new classroom with a new teacher, or something will happen at home and, boom — behaviors and needs change, and now the plan has to change again.”

MDE’s 2016 report also found Brookhaven schools did not comply with IDEA discipline practices when the school tried to send M.M. to Millcreek school in Meadville, a residential behavioral health rehabilitation center. Investigators said although the student had a functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan, those documents do not contain all the required components and we not appropriately designed to address the student’s needs.

Investigators also found no evidence either document was linked to M.M.’s educational goals, no evidence classroom observations were made during their development and no evidence progress monitoring was used to make data-based decisions regarding the student’s needs.

Furthermore, the report shows a pair of district counselors who worked with M.M. were clueless about the student’s assessments and behavioral goals. MDE separately interviewed district transition coordinator Kathy Halliwell and behavior counselor Richard Balkcom, finding that neither could describe specifics of the documents or descriptions of how behavioral support was administered, or information regarding progress monitoring. The counselors were also unable to identify the same target behaviors, agree on who developed the student’s behavioral plans or who oversaw their implementation.

“Kids with disabilities who have behavioral challenges aren’t doing it because they want to and they think it’s fun. It’s a symptom of their disability,” Ullman said. “Not intervening and addressing those issues is basically discriminating against that kid because of their disability. Just like we don’t punish blind students for not being able to see the words on the page, we can’t punish kids with a disability for having a behavioral challenge.”

Similar issues of lack of communication in the district’s special education program arose during the Riley contract hearing last week.

District behavioral specialist Anabel Spencer testified restraint and seclusion training is taught in-house in slideshow presentations that last “30 or 45 minutes,” while certification from MDE-approved vendors is taught in a three-day course. Spencer testified the course could not be properly taught in such a short time, and that she kept a sign-in sheet to show district personnel had undergone the training when MDE and district policy requires certification.

Additionally, Myers testified last week she did not know specifics about the paddling of a special needs student at Mamie Martin Elementary School and had not seen parental consent forms for corporal punishment.

“Not talking to each other and not collaborating with each other, that is what I would say is a dysfunctional administrative system,” Ullman said. “There has to be opportunities built into daily or weekly or monthly schedules to talk to each other, and compare, and make notes, and make sure everyone knows what they need to do.”

The district’s special education issues go back even further. MDE investigated Brookhaven schools for similar failures concerning the same student on May 31, 2012. The first investigation found the district failed to identify M.M. as a student with special needs and failed to complete an evaluation to determine the student’s need for services. Investigators then found the district’s “response to M.M.’s aggressive and/or disruptive behaviors has been punitive in nature rather than providing strategies and/or supports.”

As a result of the 2016 MDE finding, McDaniel filed a federal suit against Brookhaven schools on May 17, 2017. The suit was dismissed without prejudice Feb. 27, 2018, after the court found McDaniel did not follow all administrative procedures for lodging complaints under IDEA. McDaniel declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Brookhaven School District Superintendent Ray Carlock could not be reached for comment.

Click here to read the MDE investigative report for 2016.

Click here to read the MDE investigative report for 2012.