After a spring spent reeling from a tumultuous shift to online learning, school corporations have mere weeks before the fall semester to scrutinize layers of precautions or protocols to decide what — or who — they may have forgotten.
A complaint and appeal procedure filed against Tippecanoe School Corp. in July alleges that a middle schooler diagnosed with autism was neglected by teachers and staff for months this spring.
The sixth-grader was suspended from school twice in the first two months of the year, apparently in line with a settlement agreement TSC had struck with the parents in January.
But compliance faltered in the first two weeks of March, the complaint alleges, when the student received fewer than five total hours of education and social skills instruction a week. The settlement guaranteed six hours of education and two hours of counseling and social skills instruction a week.
After schools closed to in-person learning in April, 36 minutes’ worth of status calls from an instructor with no special education license is the only formal coursework the student received, according to the complaint.
“After (the student’s) return to school, despite the Settlement Agreement, his educational situation has gone from bad to worse,” the complaint reads.
The Exponent will refrain from identifying the student, his parents or the middle school he attends because the family declined requests to be interviewed.
Tom Blessing, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said the issues began with failed implementation of the student’s original Individualized Education Plan, a document all students with disabilities in Indiana rely on to detail learning objectives and additional accommodations or services required.
Despite having meetings in the spring, the parties could not agree on a new IEP.
Existing conflict then became exacerbated by the haphazard shift to online learning, which offered schools leeway to administer substandard education to students with disabilities, Blessing said.
A “totally bewildered” special education hearing officer, not the officer the family had become accustomed to during previous proceedings, dismissed a due process hearing on June 8. The family and TSC wanted to determine a new IEP during that hearing, the appeal states.
The Indiana Department of Education agreed on June 30 to reappoint the original hearing officer.
The July filing requests the officer’s rulings be reversed and the plaintiffs’ fees be reimbursed. The school is likely to respond to the grievances by September at latest, the plaintiffs’ attorney said.
“The ongoing denial of services has had a real impact on the student,” Blessing said. “One would hope after taking legal action the school would sort of get its act together, but it hasn’t.”
Sue Scott, a spokesperson for TSC, said the school corporation cannot comment on pending legislation because of privacy protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The corporation’s director of special education also cited FERPA in her response to a request for comment.
When asked to comment in general about TSC’s preparations to adequately serve students with special needs, Scott said, “I am concerned any general answers about procedures will be perceived as responding to the lawsuit.”
The parents aren’t certain whether the child will continue at the middle school, Blessing said. To him, the alleged failure to effectively shift the student to online learning this spring indicates a broader question: Can distance learning work for students with disabilities?
Blessing ran down a list of staff members many schools hire to assist students with disabilities: teachers of service, special education instructors, occupational therapists, counselors, school psychologists.
Trying to replicate the village of educational aides schools hire to assist students with special needs is doomed to fail, he said.
“If you have a kid who won’t sit still or pay attention for more than a few minutes, it’s enough keeping them on task in a classroom,” Blessing said. “Imagine doing it on a computer. The parents aren’t trained to be teaching, maybe they have other kids in the household.
“Students with disabilities are supposed to be guaranteed under federal law a free and appropriate public education, and in my opinion, most of the time they’re not getting it with distance learning. Unfortunately, some of them might be irreparably harmed.”
Rose Mason, a Purdue professor and director of the Autism Behavior Intervention Lab, formerly served as a school psychologist. She’s watched in dismay as schools, already underresourced, try to balance the safety of all students with their responsibility to provide substantive education.
The needs of students with disabilities, especially intensive and often hands-on, present an added layer of difficulty, Mason said.
“For kids with disabilities, learning takes longer and also the regression can be faster,” she said. “Any time you miss school, they might be actually losing some skills and then you have to spend more time reteaching those as opposed to increasing their repertoire of skills.”
Mason said special education programs typically operate throughout the summer to manage this rapid regression. The complaint against TSC alleges the student received no education while school was out of session, and that the student’s counselor did not receive payment to assist with the development of social skills.
To Mason, the question of lost skills seems beyond doubt: Schools have likely accepted that many students in special education programs were underserved this spring and summer, she said. No training regimen or set of policies is fit to guide school corporations through an abrupt two-month shutdown.
Preemptive measures are necessary to prevent further academic disruption this fall, she said. A failure to adjust with urgency will only increase the volume of skills and knowledge to rebuild.
“Schools are going to have to consider what they’re going to do to support those kids that are on IEPs and do have disabilities,” she said. “What are we gonna do to help them regain those skills and to get back to where they started?
“I don’t think there’s an easy answer.”
‘I have grave concerns’
On Feb. 19, the sixth-grader received a five-day suspension, his second in less than three weeks.
The first was issued on Jan. 31, and both were for “behaviors directly related to his disabilities and the lack of a trained aide,” the complaint says. The student’s counselor wrote in a declaration attached to the complaint that she was inexplicably barred from attending to him during class until she submitted to a background check in late February.
“In my over 20 years of clinical practice,” the counselor says, “I have never been denied admittance to a school to observe a child due to this reason or any other reason.”
During the final week of February, the complaint alleges that the student received fewer than two hours of any instruction or service.
TSC could place the student on homebound instruction, which it officially did on Feb. 28, according to a contingency plan detailed in the settlement agreement. But the plan also established that the student would receive at least six hours of educational instruction and two hours of counseling and social skills instruction a week.
Immediately the agreement faltered, according to the complaint.
From March 2 to March 6, “The school provided (the student) less than four hours of any type of academic instruction, which was prior to any COVID-19 closures,” the complaint states. “He received one hour of social skill instruction.”
The situation worsened the following week, the complaint alleges. Total hours of academic instruction fell below three, and again, the middle school delivered only one hour of social skills instruction. Teachers offered no e-learning or alternative program to the homebound child, according to the filing.
TSC offered two revised IEPs on Feb. 25 and March 6, neither of which the student’s parents agreed with. The plaintiffs say the updated plans “reduced and otherwise inappropriately changed (the student’s) programming from what the Settlement Agreement stated.”
And then it was March 13, when TSC announced its spring break would begin March 16 and be extended through the end of the month because of the alarming spread of the coronavirus nationwide.
The student, along with hundreds of others in Greater Lafayette schools, received no instruction through the end of the month.
“(The student) is in desperate need for regular and consistent counseling or risks losing all gains he has made or psychologically and behaviorally deteriorating,” the student’s behavioral counselor states in her declaration.
Initially, TSC proposed that virtual learning might be conducted for only two days starting April 1. TSC soon ended in-person coursework entirely, and then cut the school year short, the final day revised to May 15.
TSC provided 36 minutes of status calls from a teacher for the entire month of April, the only discernible effort to provide academic instruction to the middle schooler as the entire school system transitioned to e-learning, the complaint alleges.
The plaintiffs say from Feb. 25 onward, the student’s assigned teacher had no special education license and no access to TSC’s online educational programming.
Six hours of social-skill instruction and five hours with a therapist during April exceeded the hour a week required for each of those services in the student’s education plan, but it was hardly consolation.
On May 13, the student’s counselor urged TSC to provide summer education to the student, a common program for children with special needs who might regress intellectually more quickly than other students. Reimbursement was denied while school was out of session, the counselor alleges, and her contract was terminated the following day.
“This child may significantly regress due to the lack of appropriate counseling and social skills services,” the counselor wrote. “I have grave concerns.”
Suspension as a solution
The student’s behavioral issues began prior to the onset of the spring semester, a review of the lawsuit and a settlement agreement signed on Jan. 19 show. He had been suspended before, though it’s unclear what specific actions led to the two suspensions this spring.
The settlement agreement says he could be placed on homebound instruction if he engaged in physical aggression toward students or staff twice, or if he damaged property or injured another person while attempting to damage property five times.
Mason, the professor, said suspension is a last resort outlined in most behavioral intervention plans. Only after rounds of preventive measures to curb misbehavior have been exhausted should a suspension be issued.
When it’s used, suspension is often ineffective — or worse, counterproductive — in changing behavior. Students who are more likely to be suspended are often the same ones who face the most deleterious effects of missing days of supervised instruction, the professor said.
“One reason students are acting out in school is because school’s hard for them,” Mason said. “A pretty common reason for misbehavior is to escape. So then if they’re behind in school, missing more school is only going to get them more behind.”
And though it’s framed as punishment by many schools, Mason notes that from a scientific standpoint, punishment means reducing the likelihood of future occurrences of some behavior.
If by misbehaving a student is attempting to communicate that he or she wants to escape school, granting a suspension may fulfill that student’s aim. In turn, Mason said, the negative behavior is more likely to occur.
Parents suffer as well when students with special needs are sent home, the professor said. They’re left to fill the vacuum of educational aides their child requires to learn effectively, something they’re almost certainly unprepared to do.
Schools are as attuned to these disparities in the quality of at-home education for students with special needs as any concerned parent, Mason said.
In general, she thinks shifting instruction to an online format was the appropriate move this spring. During the fledgling stage of the pandemic, ambiguity colored every aspect of life and health became paramount, no matter the cost, which led to sweeping decisions.
But months into the crisis, with an uncertain number of months — or years — yet to come, Mason is worried about time: time students spend in mental distress, wondering when the sudden wave of caution that’s dominated their lives will end; time away from peers, each moment a lost chance to strengthen early friendships so crucial to social development; time without meaningful education in which progress evaporates.
“The whole goal of education, the whole goal for individuals with disabilities, is that we’re teaching the skills they’re going to need to be independent,” Mason said. “And so if we lose time, we lose opportunity to get to the point where they’re going to be independent when they’re adults.”