In a sweeping decision, a Colorado Department of Education state complaints officer found ‘widespread’ concerns in Denver public schools that it was systematically violating students’ special education rights black males enrolled in district centers for emotionally challenged students.
The investigation by the state Department of Education involved 99 students who were served at special centers at district schools or an outside school under contract with the district between the spring of 2021 and 2022. The district operates separate classrooms for students with emotional disorders, called affective needs. centers, in 33 Denver schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
More than a third of the students at the centers are black boys, while 14% of the district’s enrollment is made up of black students, both male and female.
“Certainly, that’s a disproportionate number of students,” said Pam Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver, which advocates for students with disabilities and filed a state lawsuit against the district last spring.
The organization also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year alleging a pattern of discrimination against black male students. The federal investigation is ongoing. The complaint asks the Civil Rights Office to order DPS to abolish emotional needs centers and rethink how black students with disabilities are served.
The results weren’t a complete surprise “but these results are certainly telling in all that they uncovered and uncovered…that we have systemic inequities against our students with this unique need in the district,” said Julie Rottier- Lukens, executive director of DPS’ Office of Exceptional Student Services.
“I hope that with these results and the work we hope to do to meet the needs of all students with disabilities, we can make important systemic improvements.”
At issue is how the district implemented its practice of placing students with known or suspected emotional disorders in separate classrooms. Advocates have accused black male students of being disproportionately placed in such classrooms – at rates as high as four and a half times other students – due to the narrow use of biased tests that identify with severe emotional disturbances.
Advocacy Denver calls these placements “one of the most egregious examples of institutionalized racism within Denver public schools.” For years, black men have been over-identified as having severe emotional disability and also tend to be under-identified for programs designed for children diagnosed with autism, she said.
“Certainly, there are children with serious emotional disturbances. But sometimes we can’t help but wonder if there’s this bias in terms of assumptions about where a behavior comes from… There’s this racism where, if the child is black, then somehow he believes the behavior is bigger or scarier.
The district had a plan to dismantle the centers – called Project DISRUPT – but it was dismantled with new leadership in some DPS departments. Bisceglia said the complaints came after years of trying to work with the district through individual schools and administrative remedies.
“Enough was enough,” said Bisceglia, who said she saw children languishing in emotional needs centers from kindergarten through middle school.
Rottier-Lukens of DPS said one of the reasons the DISRUPT project was temporarily disbanded was the recognition that there are several areas where students of color are not receiving the same services and that officials have begun to look into these problems internally.
“We have concerns about disproportionality in many different areas, not just emotional needs programming,” she said. An example is the underrepresentation of children of color in the gifted and talented program. Rottier-Lukens said the remedies the district will undertake align with the DPS’s new strategic roadmap that prioritizes “examining and dismantling systems of oppression.”
Rottier-Lukens said emotional needs centers allow staff to meet the needs of students who require a more restrictive setting.
“While we still have an obligation to provide this continuum of services, we are really trying to shift to more inclusive practices as well.”
During the pandemic, she said district teams began looking at where culture and bias might have played a role in student assessment. For example, some students were experiencing a significant amount of trauma at home, which resulted in certain behaviors at school that may have increased the “perception that students needed a higher level of programming when in reality they were reacting to a trauma in their life.”
State Complaints Officer found five systemic violations
He said the district has consistently failed to conduct comprehensive needs assessments or make proper decisions about students’ eligibility for services under federal education law.
In one case of suspected disability, despite low academic test scores, the district focused on a student’s behavioral issues and did not assess the student’s cognitive abilities. Half of the assessments studied did not use a variety of sources and information to make an assessment, as required by law. The complaints officer said the district also failed to ensure that assessments were selected and administered “in a way that does not discriminate on a racial or cultural basis.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Act also requires students to be educated in their “least restrictive environment,” which he says the district has not done. This means, for example, considering additional aids and services that would make it possible to enroll students in regular classes. The district also failed to ensure that students were able to participate in non-academic and extracurricular activities to the fullest extent possible, the complaint states.
He found that the district failed to send prior written notice to parents of changes in a child’s placement, failed to ensure that teachers in the center’s two programs had the appropriate licensing and certification, and consistently failing to develop, review, and revise a student’s Individual Education Plan. that reflects student needs.
The complaints officer ordered a number of corrective actions, including training for all district special education officials, officials of schools offering emotional needs programs, as well as teachers, social workers and psychologists. schoolchildren who work in the programs. It names specific timelines for corrective action, including compensatory services for some students.
Denver Public Schools provides considerable autonomy to individual schools, especially the charter and innovation schools where some of the centers are located. Generally, schools can decline district training for their staff.
“With the decision, they will be required to participate in training,” Bisceglia said. “In public law, that’s where we don’t allow autonomy… We have to make sure that we meet the range of needs presented by students with disabilities.
Rottier-Lukens said DPS is committed to providing special education staff with the training and support they need.
The DPS, like school districts across the country, has struggled to hire special education staff. She hopes the recently negotiated salary increases will help, as well as a new committee to set standards around workload and workload. More resources could facilitate ongoing support and coaching for special education staff, which would help the district “thoughtfully plan for long-term systemic change.”