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Bronx Special Needs Students Underserved by City Education System: Report

By Kate Pastor | July 13, 2017 5:18pm
 Public Advocate Letitia James found that South Bronx students are among the least likely in the city to receive needed disability services provided outside of school.
Public Advocate Letitia James found that South Bronx students are among the least likely in the city to receive needed disability services provided outside of school.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

THE BRONX — South Bronx students are among the least likely in the city to receive needed disability services provided outside of school, according to a new report by Public Advocate Letitia James.

Many city schools, especially in the outer boroughs don't have enough staff to provide services, such as speech therapists, mental health counselors or occupational therapists, according to the findings.

In those cases, parents get a voucher — called a Related Service Authorization — to use for services provided outside of school.

But nearly half of the vouchers go unused, the report found, and the problem is “particularly acute” in Bronx school districts 8, 9, 10, and 11.

In Bronx School Districts 8, which includes Hunts Point, 91 percent of 129 vouchers went unused in the 2015-2016 school year.

In District 9, which includes Morrisania, 63 percent of 365 vouchers were not redeemed.

Citywide there were 9,164 vouchers given out and nearly half of them — 4,161 — were not used, the report found.

Using the vouchers can prove particularly difficult in parts of the city that providers don’t want to visit, according to the report, and families who choose to take their children to the providers find it challenging to get reimbursed by the Department of Education for travel.

As part of its investigation, the Public Advocate’s office called 50 speech therapists and 50 occupational therapists who were independent providers claiming to offer services in the Bronx. None would travel to the borough. The office also called providers on a list provided by the DOE and very few of them were willing to travel to the Bronx either.

Families from poor school districts and those living in shelters are particularly effected by the problem, the study found.

In District 8, 3,747 students — 12 percent of the student body — were homeless in 2014-2015, and in District 9, the homeless rate was 18 percent.

The Public Advocate’s study concluded that the vouchers are “effectively useless” in parts of the Bronx.

"The RSA voucher program does not work for students, parents, or schools; and is leading to the neglect of students with disabilities," James said. "It is essential for the DOE to reevaluate its reliance on RSA vouchers and find a way to provide for all students."

The Department of Education says it has hired 700 new staff clinicians over the past three years and has expanded the pool of contract agencies used when no DOE therapist is available. In the small percentage of cases that RSA’s are given, the DOE says it connects families with providers, updating the list as needed, and provides transportation when necessary.

“The percentage of students receiving their recommended related services increased to 95 percent during SY 2016-17 – up from 84 percent five years ago – including very substantial gains in areas of the city that have historically been the hardest to serve,” said Toya Holness, a Department of Education spokeswoman. 

The DOE says it will continue to update and improve the process.