ISD Dallas took the first step in eliminating a backlog of more than 2,000 special education referrals, some dating back to 2017.
As of last week, DISD had progressed through all but three of the 2,140 overdue referrals, receiving either the green light to begin the special education assessment process or the denial of that offer by those families, said. district officials.
DISD is now providing support services to an additional 642 students, increasing the district’s special education program by nearly 4%. Almost 500 other files are still awaiting an assessment or an âadmission, review and dismissalâ meeting.
âI know we can’t go for a winning lap when we’ve caused the problems at the start,â said Derek Little, assistant director of academics. “But internally, and hopefully with the community, this is starting to take a turn where we are resetting the expectations of ourselves about the work we do in special education.”
Federal law sets time limits for the steps that must be taken in the special education process, many of which are overseen by the state’s Texas Education Agency. The speed with which referrals are processed, however, is not something the TEA verifies. Official monitoring does not begin until a parent agrees to an assessment.
In December 2020, DISD has submitted a “corrective action plan” to the state after the TEA cited several incidents where the district’s special education department failed to follow federal guidelines.
The backlog was discovered earlier this year as DISD’s new leadership reviewed the structure and shortcomings of the special education department. In March, DISD appealed to Gena Koster, longtime Keller ISD director of special education, to become the district’s deputy superintendent for special populations.
An internal investigation revealed incomplete referrals, caused by the lack of a formal admissions structure, the use of handwritten paper forms and poor data tracking within the ministry.
DISD has since revised and automated many of these processes, also partnering with Houston-based special education consultant Stetson and Associates to review the district’s staff structure and workload management.
The referral steps “had to be streamlined so that there was a very systematic process,” Koster said.
âIt’s a bit like passing the baton in a relay,â she said. âEveryone has to work as a team and everyone has to anticipate what will come next. “
But the work is far from over.
DISD still has 407 cases requiring assessment, and another 81 cases awaiting an âadmit, review and rejectâ or ARD meeting – the last step before services are provided. Little said the district will continue to work with independent contractors to ensure cases are dealt with quickly. DISD spent $ 1 million to clear the backlog.
In addition, the district is committed to offering compensatory services to all students impacted by the delay. These services can include things like after-school tutoring, summer courses, and extra time in speech-language pathology or physiotherapy.
Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney for Disability Rights Texas – an advocacy group that works with disabled Texans – said in May that such a prolonged deadline would likely have a lasting academic and emotional impact on these students, regardless of the additional help.
âCompensatory services are great,â Rynders said, âbut they never quite cure you.â
In a statement to The morning news from Dallas Rynders wrote on Wednesday that he and his organization were disappointed with the district’s progress. DISD has held ongoing meetings with Disability Rights Texas to provide updates and gather feedback. It was only recently that the district made it clear that its self-imposed September deadline was to get consent from affected families and not to put students through the ARD process.
âEven after signing a consent, it typically takes 45 school days, most of a semester, to complete an assessment,â Rynders wrote.
Another area of ââpossible concern is the number of families who refuse special education services in the district.
Typically, when a student is referred for special education at Dallas ISD, Little said, about 20% of families turn down these additional supports.
But for the oldest late referrals – nearly 1,500 of which date back to before the 2020-21 school year – 42% of families have refused these services.
Little said he was not âat the big levelâ affected by these percentages. He added that the district was stressing that the student support team on each campus played a bigger role in referrals, especially those related to studies.
âThis is something that we are striving to tighten up this year and in the future,â he said, âso that 1) everyone in this child’s life is aware that a referral is being made. , and 2) we reduce our number of disqualified children because we actually have a referral that is justified, documented, and where the student really needs services.
The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.