Chicago Public Schools Vow Overhaul of Special Education Program
March 31, 2010
Critics describe the Chicago Public Schools special education system as so complex and litigious that parents of children with disabilities must hire a cadre of medical and legal experts to have any hope of getting their child proper educational services. Disputes with the district can drain parents’ resources and patience, and leave the physicians who care for their kids exasperated.
"They are systemically preventing kids from getting services," said Peter J. Smith, assistant professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Chicago. "I could gi ve you story after story after story. It’s so ridiculously off the reservation that there’s just no question that they’re not doing what they should do. It’s not even close."
Following a series of Tribune stories, Chicago Public Schools officials said Monday they will launch a "major reorganization" of the district’s special education program, promising to eradicate systemic problems that many say make it difficult for the city’s most vulnerable children to get the educational services they need.
"A special need should not prevent a child from learning," said district spokeswoman Monique Bond. "This is an area where time is of the essence because these are students and children whose needs are at risk when we don’t address their issues in a timely manner. We’re very cognizant of that."
District sources said the head of CPS’ special education office, Deborah Duskey, will no longer fill that role, though officials would not confirm that any change had been made. Bond did say the reorganization would include changes that would make the $850-million-a-year special education program more "parent-friendly."
The Tribune’s reporting — which included interviews with dozens of parents of children with disabilities and with special education teachers and case managers, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of court and school documents — repeatedly revealed cases in which the federally mandated educational rights of children with disabilities were being denied or delayed. Parents of young children just entering CPS routinely struggle to get their children evaluated for special education, those who have plans in place must often fight for the services they’ve been promised, and even the few who sue the district and prevail don’t always get the services they’ve been awarded.
Courtney Stillman, who practices special education law at Monahan & Cohen, said a family can easily spend $10,000 on the team of experts needed to take on the district and fight for services.
"CPS’ attorneys are all in-house," Stillman said. "They’re already paying them, so they’ll take their sweet time, they’ll keep pushing it and they hope that the parent just runs out of resources and gives up."
If parents go it alone, Stillman said, they are likely to wind up with bare-bones services.
Bond said she does not believe the special education system, which serves about 45,000 students, is broken, but acknowledged: "We do have a lot of work to do."
She said the district plans to implement a data-driven system that will track special education students from the moment families make contact with their local schools.
"I think that’s where the communication breakdown occurs," Bond said. "There’s a point of communication breakdown where the district is not getting the information it needs from the schools."
She also said the district plans to begin keeping track of parent complaints regarding special education, so potential problems can be addressed: "No parent should be running up against the wall."
Yet many do.
Eva Padilla tried last March to enroll her 3-year-old son in Chicago Public Schools so he could begin the early childhood services critical for young children with autism. After a year of delays by the district, it took a pro bono attorney to get Leo Garcia placed at Oritz Elementary School, where his education finally began on March 22.
Another parent, Kimberly Easley, tried for more than two years to get the district to evaluate her son, who has an emotional disturbance, for special education services. Easley wound up suing the district and getting her son placed in a private therapeutic day school. The hearing officer’s strongly worded ruling in January noted that had the district done what it was supposed to do as early as 2007, the student’s "regression, multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and resulting failure" in school could have been prevented.
Similar stories can be heard from families in every part of the city.
"There are thousands of children in this system who are not getting the special education services they need," said Mary Ann Pollett, principal at Montefiore Special School. "It’s a system that is broken and has been broken for a long time, and it’s the kids that are paying the price."
Smith, the University of Chicago pediatrician, estimated that, at most, a third of the children he diagnoses with a disability wind up receiving special education services from CPS. He stressed that the sooner these children get the services they need, the greater chance they have of living successful, independent lives.
"It’s not just that they fall farther behind, it’s that more and more problems start to develop," Smith said. "It comes down to a question of, ‘Are they goi ng to be welfare recipients or taxpayers?’ Even if you don’t like these kids, even if you were a cynical jerk, you’d want this to work."
Scott Murphy anguishes over what a yearlong fight with CPS may have cost his 5-year-old son, Ryan, who was diagnosed with autism before entering the public school system at age 3. The boy’s doctor, an autism expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recommended that Ryan receive 25 hours a week of intensive therapy and educational services. CPS would provide only half those hours.
The Murphys said they trusted the district and believed it would do what was right for Ryan. But they soon saw him regressing, his behavior becoming more erratic. They wound up filing a due process complaint against CPS and, in the end, won their case. Ryan was placed in the Chicago Autism Academy.
"If we’d gotten him these services earlier, that’s what so enrages me," said Ryan’s father. "Time is of the essence, and the window to reach him closes fast. To whatever degree our son’s life is stressful, whatever difficulties he might have, we’re going to feel like failures as parents. We’re always going to wonder if we were aggressive enough."