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More Than 60,000 Special Needs Students Not Getting Right Support: Report

By Amy Zimmer | March 2, 2016 4:07pm
 A classroom at the Frederick Douglass Academy II in Morningside Heights.
A classroom at the Frederick Douglass Academy II in Morningside Heights.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

MANHATTAN — Of more than 173,000 special needs students in the city’s public schools, 40 percent of them may not be receiving the supports and services they need, according to a Department of Education report released this week.

More than 60,000 children were only partially receiving the required services outlined in their individualized education plans (IEPs) according to the report using 2015 data released because of a new City Council law requiring such data annually.

Add to that number the 8,500 students with special needs who were supposed to be receiving services and not getting any, such as counseling and speech therapy.

“It’s a huge number of kids,” said Maggie Moroff, of Advocates for Children, which works with families to get the services they need for their special needs students. “I wish we were surprised by the numbers, but we weren’t. We get calls every day, and a big portion of our own caseload is for kids not getting any services or not being properly served.”

The data revealing the gap in services highlights what many principals and teachers recently told DNAinfo New York about how they struggled to provide students with needed supports, often improperly downgrading services due to budget constraints.

In a poll of nearly 900 chapter leaders, the United Federation of Teachers found that 44 percent said their schools had altered student IEPs to reduce the amount of resources schools had to give them. Principals said they felt pressured to take students who were supposed to be in self-contained classes with no more than 12 other special needs students and instead put them into mixed classrooms that can have up to 32 students.

Parents have also told DNAinfo of situations in which schools wanted to change their children’s IEPs, including for one student, who was placed in a mixed class instead of the self-contained class he needed and ended up being repeatedly suspended for behavioral issues.

Because of such problems, many parents and educators have said that the DOE’s school-based special education policy — implemented in 2012 to integrate students into general education classrooms as much as possible — has been failing many students.

DOE officials admitted that the data likely had holes in it because its reporting systems were unreliable, making it difficult to fully and accurately capture all of the data required under the new law. Because of the flawed reporting system, which uses multiple databases, some of the numbers might be too low in some areas, other might be too high, officials said.

Public Advocate Letitia James last month filed a lawsuit against the DOE over the computer system, claiming it led to students not getting needed disability services.

The DOE noted that the administration has already convened a multi-agency working group to improve the reporting systems going forward. Additionally, officials noted, the city committed $7.5 million in new funding to hire school psychologists and social workers and plan to assign new staff to schools identified as having the greatest need.

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, who is the Deputy Chancellor for the Division of Specialized Instruction, said the report “serves to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring all students have access to a rigorous and inclusive education with appropriate services and supports.”