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Shift to School-Based Special-Needs Services Is Failing Kids, Parents Say

By Amy Zimmer | October 13, 2015 7:57am | Updated on October 13, 2015 8:10am
 Chelsea dad Joseph Smith with his wife and three children. His children's zoned school could not accommodate the services his oldest son needed, though it was able to meet the needs of another son. Smith initially was faced with either sending his kids to different schools or downgrading his son's services. In the end, he was able to get all three in another school.
Chelsea dad Joseph Smith with his wife and three children. His children's zoned school could not accommodate the services his oldest son needed, though it was able to meet the needs of another son. Smith initially was faced with either sending his kids to different schools or downgrading his son's services. In the end, he was able to get all three in another school.
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Joseph Smith

QUEENS — Deja Futrell received so many phone calls every day from her son's school about his behavior problems that she eventually stopped answering her cellphone.

Her ninth-grade son had been diagnosed with an "emotional disturbance" — a special-needs category that meant he was supposed to be put into a "self-contained" class with no more than 12 students overseen by a teacher and a paraprofessional.

But his school, Queens Collegiate, didn't offer such services, despite a mandatory requirement that schools handle the needs of every special education student instead of the former centralized process.

Yet because the 600-student middle and high school refused to concede it couldn't serve her son, Futrell was unable to transfer him out. As a result, he spent almost the entire year in suspension, she said.

"I would drop him off at 9 o'clock. They would start calling me at 9:05. They would suspend him for any little thing. They'd suspend him for throwing paper. If he coughed too loud, it wasn't because there was something in his throat but because he was distracting somebody," she said.

"I had to take off every week to go to a [suspension] hearing," added Futrell, a single mom from Far Rockaway who works as an administrative assistant while finishing up her degree in accounting.

The principal at Queens Collegiate did not respond to phone or email requests to comment for this story.

Roughly 19 percent of the city's public school students have special needs, such as speech impairments, learning disabilities or autism, according to an Independent Budget Office analysis of data from the 2013-14 school year.

The Department of Education implemented a new school-based special education policy in 2012 to integrate students into general education classrooms as much as possible, as opposed to keeping them separated, officials said. Special-needs students get an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, which outlines what specific services they'd receive based on their needs.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has made it clear she wants special-needs students to attend their zoned schools. Currently, 85 percent of such students currently do so — the highest percentage ever, DOE officials said. And the city expect these numbers to grow.

"We are committed to providing the programs that students with disabilities need in their local schools, and we’re encouraged that the percentage of students with IEPs attending their home-zoned school is the highest it’s ever been," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.

"In the rare circumstance where a school is unable to provide a program on a student’s IEP, we work with the school, student and family to provide the best option for the student," he added.

But parents and advocates for special-needs students say the reality is that many of the schools are either unwilling or unable to give their kids the required services — leaving them to fall behind.

At some point last year, Futrell's son's IEP was suddenly changed without notice at a meeting she did not attend, to strip him of services, she said.

Her complaints fell on deaf ears until she connected with Advocates for Children, which helps low-income students struggling with discrimination.

The organization helped Futrell get city funding to pay for her son to leave the public school system entirely. He is now repeating ninth grade at a private school for special-needs students, the Martin De Porres School in Far Rockaway, where there are no more than five students and three teachers in the class, she said.

"It's great to be in a community school, but you have to make sure teachers know how to meet the needs of students and more of a variety of disabilities, and that there's sufficient space to provide services like occupational therapy, physical therapy and counseling," said Maggie Moroff, of Advocates for Children.

She said while the DOE's school-based special-needs policy is a "great goal" designed to end a tendency to push out students with disabilities, the execution is more complicated.

It's not easy for schools to provide what individuals may need, especially a small school where only a couple of students need self-contained classes, Moroff explained.

In addition, schools may be reluctant to move kids "because central says schools should be able to meet the needs of all their students," she added.

"Now we spend a lot of time fighting with schools who can't give the services [children] need," Moroff said. "We used to fight to get kids in and now we fight to get kids out."

When schools can't accommodate the specific services outlined in a student's IEP, Moroff has seen a push to convince parents to "change their mindset" about their child's needs and to change the IEP.

"If done right, the school figures out another way to accommodate the student. If done wrong, the student's needs are not met," Moroff said.

Joseph Smith, a Chelsea father who has a kindergartner and first-grader with special needs, was outraged when he learned his children's zoned elementary school would be unable to provide the services needed for his older son and suggested they change that child's IEP.

Smith spent nearly two years corresponding with various Department of Education officials, who gave him assurances that his local school, P.S. 340, a 2-year-old small school, would be able to accommodate all three of his children.

Just a few weeks before classes were set to start this fall, he said he learned the school couldn't provide the right class for his oldest boy, who needed to be in a mixed class with no more than 40 percent special needs students led by a special education teacher and general education teacher.

Smith could either send his oldest child somewhere else, or leave him in the school without the needed services.

"In essence the DOE was saying, 'If you want to keep your family together, you've got to give your child less than what he's supposed to get, or if you want to give him what he's supposed to get, you've got to break up your family," said Smith, who works in IT.  

In the end, Smith — whose appeals made their way up to the DOE's top-ranking officers — was able to get the DOE to place all three students in the West Village's P.S. 3, where each would be in the appropriately staffed classroom.