NCDPI finds numerous violations of state & federal special education law committed by the Wake County Public School System; Corrective action ordered
May 10, 2010 Media Rele
ase, Advocates for Children's Services

(Raleigh) - State and federal special education law mandate that students with disabilities who are suspended from school must continue to receive a free and appropriate public education with individualized instruction in the least restrictive environment.  These educational services must enable the students to participate in the general education curriculum and make progress on the goals set out in their individualized education programs (IEPs).  Based on a state complaint filed by Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) found that the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) violated state and federal special education laws by their practice of limiting the educational services for long-term suspended students with disabilities to one to six hours per week of home/hospital (H/H) instruction.  The DPI found that WCPSS’ practice of H/H instruction is not individualized, does not occur in the least restrictive environment, and ultimately does not provide students with the free and appropriate public education they are entitled to under the law. 

ACS staff attorneys first became aware of this practice in the course of representing students with disabilities facing long-term suspensions.  ACS attorneys were repeatedly frustrated and dismayed by the fact that their clients—students with disabilities—were being shoved out of school, where they received over thirty hours of instruction per week and constant daytime supervision, and into the streets, where they received, on average, three hours of H/H instruction per week and limited supervision. The vast majority of these students already lag far behind their peers academically; the limited instruction they receive while suspended virtually guarantees that they will fail yet another year of school.

Therefore, in December 2009, ACS filed a complaint with the DPI.  The DPI launched an investigation of the WCPSS, and over the next five months, reviewed documents, audited student records, and interviewed staff.  The investigators discovered over 200 students who were only receiving between one and six hours of H/H instruction per week because of long-term suspension or “behavior.”

The DPI noted major problems with special education services in general in the WCPSS. For example the report reads:  “The records revealed students who had been retained for multiple grades and had not passed the  EOG [End-Of-Grade] Tests in Reading and Math or the  EOC [End-Of-Course] Tests in high school yet they received 10 minutes of special education services a week or a reporting period prior to their removals.  The duration and frequency of special education services in the IEPs for the students with ‘regular’ placements were, in most cases, very limited.”  The DPI report directly links the WCPSS' failure to properly educate and support these students with the students' eventual removals from school:  “The IEPs failed to provide adequate educational and behavioral supports for the students to progress in the general education curriculum or to remain in school.”

Ultimately, the DPI found the WCPSS:
  Ÿ Failed to develop IEPs based upon the unique needs of each student
     with a disability who is long-term suspended;
  Ÿ Failed to provide a continuum of placements, which limited IEP Teams
     to only one option when determining the appropriate [interim alternative
     education setting] IAES;
  Ÿ Failed to provide students with disabilities who are long-term
     suspended with a placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE);
  Ÿ Failed to hold monthly meetings to determine the continued
     appropriateness of H/H instruction for each student with a disability
     receiving H/H services during a disciplinary removal;
  Ÿ Failed to report valid and reliable information on the April 1, 2010,
     Child Count; and
  Ÿ Failed to provide a free and appropriate public education for the
     students who were placed on H/H for [long-term] LT suspension and
     for behavior.

The DPI report provided some heartbreaking examples of specific students who are victims of Wake County’s practices.  An eighteen-year-old student who was still in ninth grade and who has a specific learning disability and a history of mental health problems, but no history of behavioral problems, was long-term suspended.  Prior to his suspension, he received special education services for only ten minutes, twice each nine-week reporting period (i.e., one hour and twenty minutes per year).  While he was suspended, his IEP provided for only 4.5 hours per week of H/H instruction; it did not include social skills, behavioral strategies, or specialized instruction in reading or basic math.

The DPI report then goes on to list many corrective actions WCPSS must take, including:
  Ÿ Providing compensatory education for the hundreds of students
     whose rights were violated;
  Ÿ Creating “an alternative special education program more closely
     tailored to the students' unique needs and that ensures a continuum
     of alternative placements for that student population”; and
  Ÿ Developing and implementing “a plan for the 2010-2011 school year
     to review the records and services of students with disabilities who
     are failing their classes and have multiple retentions or suspensions,
     and provide significant interventions, including related services, based
     upon each student's individual needs.”

The staff at the DPI should be praised for the depth and quality of their investigation and their willingness to speak up against injustice.  Their report exemplifies the type of oversight and accountability that should be conducted throughout government agencies that serve children.

The WCPSS should be ashamed.  It has deliberately deprived some of our most vulnerable children of the education they so desperately need and to which they have a right under state and federal law.  This should be a wake up call for Wake County:  You cannot ignore the law and treat vulnerable children and families unfairly!

The WCPSS has one the largest suspension problems in the nation.  Last school year, Wake County schools gave out 20,651 short-term suspensions (i.e., suspensions lasting one to ten days) and, for the fifth year in a row, kicked out over 1,000 students for the rest of the school year.  The policies and practices of H/H instruction for long-term suspended students are simply one piece of a larger systemic crisis for the WCPSS: the school-to-prison pipeline that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system.

In addition to taking the corrective action required by the DPI regarding H/H instruction, we urge the WCPSS to take affirmative steps to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in Wake County.  The eyes of the community are on the WCPSS and this is an opportunity to examine other practices such as zero tolerance policies, unlimited school administrator discretion to suspend, the over-policing of schools, the over-use of suspensions, and the involvement of the criminal justice system for minor school-based offenses. 

The WCPSS should not wait for another investigation by the DPI to improve the educational experience for all of our children.

#             #             #

Lewis Pitts (Senior Managing Attorney, LANC Advocates for Children's Services), Durham, NC, 919-226-0052

Jason Langberg (Staff Attorney, Clifton W. Everett, Sr. Community Fellow, LANC Advocates for Children), Durham, NC 919-226-0051, ext. 438

Dock Kornegay (Director, Public Relations & Development, Legal Aid of NC), Raleigh, NC, 919-856-2564

 4 "State finds Wake violated law for special-education students"
       (May 10, 2010 article, News & Observer, Raleigh, NC)
 4 "Replace program, Wake told"
       (May 11, 2010 article, News & Observer, Raleigh, NC)


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