Whatever fixes the Rochester City School District might ultimately apply to its ailing special education program: The remedies do not promise to come quickly or be easy.
Recently highlighted by a report jointly issued by the state attorney general’s office and the Department of Education after a roughly yearlong investigation, the tragic death of School 12 student Trevyan Rowe last year is the special education program’s most visible and widely publicized failure.
Released this month, the 30-page report details a series of failures that make it hard to write off Rowe’s death as an isolated incident. Given the systemic nature of the missteps the report uncovered, it is equally hard to imagine that the district’s special education program is a dysfunctional anomaly in an otherwise well-run district.
Much of the publicity surrounding Rowe’s March 2018 death centered on School No. 12 officials’ failure to notice he was not in class because his first period teacher erroneously marked him as present, a shortfall the district addressed by changing its attendance-reporting procedure.
But perhaps more disturbing, the joint investigation found that despite a well-documented history of extreme emotional distress that predated the 14-year-old’s transfer into the Rochester district and continued during his time in Rochester schools, special education committees misclassified Rowe, labeling his as learning disabled.
The report ascribes Rowe’s emotional unbalance to post-traumatic stress. It traces his PTSD to an undescribed event serious enough to have led him to threaten or at least openly fantasize to teachers and other school functionaries about suicide more than once.
Despite acknowledging Rowe’s mental and emotional fragility, and though he tested as of at least average intellectual ability, RCSD classified him as learning disabled, a category that meant that he did not get counseling that might have helped him better cope with his emotional instability, the report concludes.
Also disturbing is the report’s finding that on two occasions school officials found Rowe’s behavior disturbing enough to warrant a home visit by a social worker and a teacher to make sure his mother was aware of the seriousness of his problems. Met by a child who on one occasion informed the school team that the mother was not home and on another that the mother was asleep, the school team dropped the matter and made no further attempts to talk to the parent.
The Trevyan Rowe report is the most recent but hardly the first to call out the RCSD for special education failures.
In 2017, consultant Judy Elliott, who had been hired by the RCSD to review its special education programs, issued a scathing report.
“There is urgent need and a moral imperative to immediately address the system wide inequities that are evident across students, programs, and academic and behavior outcomes,” the report states.
Among deficiencies Elliott noted was the lack of a coherent system to make sure the district was complying with the state’s special education requirements. Partly in response to Elliott’s report, the RCSD and the Rochester- and Albany-based public interest law consortium, the Empire Justice Center, agreed to jointly organize a special committee to seek solutions for the RCSD’s special education conundrum. Then RCSD school board member Melanie Funchess, a parent of two RCSD special education students who has since left the board, headed the committee.
Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino’s November 2018 report noted, among a wider panoply of problems, Elliot’s indictment and the special committee’s work. Aquino is also calling on the district to fix its special education program.
According to Rochester School Board president Van White, a recently struck deal between the RCSD and the Empire Justice Center wraps up the special committee’s work and virtually guarantees that the RCSD will address its special education shortfalls. White appears to be getting ahead of himself, however.
Erroneously claiming that a document fully detailing an agreement that the committee and the Empire Justice Center recently reached was available for public inspection on the RCSD website, White described the pact to a community group last month and several weeks ago to me in an interview as a highly detailed signed, sealed and delivered consent decree.
Had it been as White described it, the pact would have been a potentially momentous step forward, a detailed plan laying out specific steps to cure the RCSD’s special education woes. If it were a consent decree, that plan would have been filed with a court that could enforce its provisions.
Despite White’s assurances, the pact was not posted publicly. When I tried to chase it down, I learned that neither the RCSD nor the Empire Justice Center planned to make it public. Citing an agreement between her organization and the RCSD to stay mum on the pact, Empire Justice Center senior attorney Maggie Robb declined to comment. She did not supply me with a copy.
Aquino, perhaps unaware of the RCSD’s and Empire Justice Center’s resolve, included the entire pact in an appendix to his first quarterly report on the RCSD’s progress in meeting goals he had laid out in his November 2018 report.
Though highly detailed, the special education agreement does not spell out specific steps to address the RCSD’s special education shortfalls. It does prescribe penalties for the RCSD if it fails to follow through on its promise to address its special education ills, but the pact leaves specific remedies to be decided later. A potentially important step toward reaching solutions, it is still at this point an agreement to agree.
“The parties recognize and acknowledge that although their negotiations are not yet concluded and the ultimate agreement … will depend in part on efforts of third parties such as the special committee and workgroups … it is prudent and advisable now to memorialize those matters and items on which they have presently reached agreement and the process they will employ in the future,” the pact states in part.
Identifying 29 areas in which the RCSD falls short, the agreement sets a three-year timeline for arriving at solutions and calls for a consent decree to be filed when such solutions are in place.
If that three-year timeline is met and a consent decree is filed, it would be the RCSD’s third such decree, following consent decrees the district inked in the U.S. District Court here in 1983 and 1997.
Between the two prior consent decrees, the court hit the RCSD with an enforcement order after the class-action plaintiffs who won the 1983 consent decree complained that the district was failing to hew to the court-ordered agreement’s terms.
U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca detailed the 1981 plaintiffs’ complaints in a 1997 court filing. Filed with the court in 1989 and eerily echoed in the Elliot and Rowe reports, the 1981 plaintiffs accused the RCSD of shortfalls including:
• Failure to timely evaluate and place students in appropriate programs;
• Failure to provide disabled students with equal access to all educational programs and extracurricular activities;
• Failure to educate disabled students in the least restrictive environment; and
• Improperly disciplining disabled students.
I recently spoke at length with a former RCSD special education teacher whose career coincided with the prior two consent decrees. Citing a fear that comments made in that interview might be used by some to criticize currently working colleagues or the Rochester Teachers Association, the teacher, who is long retired, asked not to be identified by name.
Describing the Trevyan Rowe incident as an echo of past experience that “made me sick to my stomach,” the teacher related two anecdotes. These cases, the teacher believed, were emblematic of systemic issues that partly explain the RCSD’s failure to effectively grapple with its special education shortfalls.
In one case, the teacher had a student who was chronically overwhelmed and unable to cope with what to most would be seen as routine classroom events. The student felt safe huddling under a table, so the teacher, while not ignoring the student, would let him stay there. The strategy worked, enabling the student to make progress he otherwise would not have made. But the teacher earned demerits for allowing what higher-ups deemed an unacceptable break from classroom decorum.
Another easily overwhelmed student would collapse in a heap during unannounced fire drills, refusing to move and creating an obstacle in the path of other students. The teacher asked the school’s principal if the teacher could have advance notice of fire drills in order to prepare the student. Citing regulations requiring such drills to be unannounced, the principal refused. The teacher independently sought dispensation from the fire marshal, who granted it and the problem was solved.
School staff responsible for guiding the course of special education students’ programs meet once a year. Such staff are known as instructional education program or IEP teams. Parents can attend the meetings but are not required to. One complaint against the RCSD is that parents have not always been informed of such meetings in a timely manner.
“I would make sure the parents of my kids were at IEP meetings,” the former teacher told me. “I would give parents an envelope and tell them that if I tugged on my ear, they should open the envelope and read what was written there.”
The message the teacher asked parents to read was a demand for a further hearing to reexamine the school team’s decisions.
“Parents have the right to ask for a hearing, but parents don’t always know their rights,” the former teachers says.
Even though the RCSD was under the gun from court-backed consent decrees, the ex-teacher found that its special education program chronically fell short. Dedicated teachers might find workarounds as the teacher did to overcome structural barriers, but the barriers were still there. The system was and is poorly coordinated and suffers from a chronic lack of communication, the teacher maintains.
I covered school board meetings in the late 1980s when members were hashing through the districts’ special education dilemmas and the looming consent decree. Lack of funding to adequately meet state mandates was a common theme.
Money or lack of it partly explains the RCSD’s special education difficulties, but over-adherence to bureaucratic systems meant to protect special education students is itself a big part of the problem, the former teacher believes. Failure to inform and involve parents also hurts efforts to serve students.
“The fact is I never met a parent who didn’t care deeply about their child, but some parents are not that well-equipped. I had a child whose mother was 11 years old. The child was being cared for by her grandmother. How old do you think the grandmother was? She was 36,” the teacher says.
What is needed as much as money, the retired teacher believes, is for the RCSD to establish systems that allow for teachers to fully support students and to as much as possible actively involve parents including those who are themselves stressed by a system they see as overwhelming and unwelcoming.
In fact, the RCSD has experimented with such models, at East High School and at other so-called community schools, where full-menu support services, longer hours and other extras have achieved results. School No. 9, for example, went from receivership to a school in good standing when such extras were added.
No one argues against the community school model. Backers include school board president White, former RCSD superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, who recently called on the district to spend some $15.7 million to goose up programs at its 19 existing community schools.
Interim Superintendent Dan Lowengard does not oppose Warren’s idea but pointedly noted at a March 19 school budget presentation that the city has not increased its $119 million contribution to the district’s $925 million budget in 14 years.
“At some point, the city needs to contribute even a 1 or 2 percent increase,” Lowengard told attendees.
The district’s revenues have not covered its expenses over the past six years. To make up those shortfalls, the district has tapped reserves to tune of $80 million. It has now nearly depleted the reserve fund. To balance the 2019-20 budget without further depleting the district’s rainy-day cushion, cuts are needed, Lowengard explained.
In what the interim superintendent called “the worst slide” in his budget PowerPoint, he outlined the proposed elimination of 326 positions including 194 teaching jobs and the elimination of 40 special education supervisory jobs. The latter cut would eliminate an entire division that was created to meet the earlier consent decrees’ provisions.
The supervisory special education program would be redesigned with the cut supervisors’ responsibilities parceled out to other officials, while the teaching cuts would partially blunted by an early retirement offer, Lowengard said.
Still, he added, “these are awful cuts. It’s painful, but we had to do it. We have to get to a spot where we spend only what’s coming in. If we don’t do it, we could go bankrupt.”
Under financial strain, the RCSD faces an uncertain management picture that could affect its ability to reach a special education concord or to successfully carry through on a future consent decree’s terms.
School commissioners have yet curb their tendency to disruptively insert themselves in the district’s day-to-day management and are too ready to fight among themselves, Aquino noted in his recent quarterly update.
“The Board’s divisions continue, and meetings tend to be difficult, with commissioners’ tensions and conflicts frequently erupting in public,” the distinguished educator wrote.
Meanwhile, the future shape and direction of the RCSD’s leadership is unclear.
The board expects to have named a new superintendent by July, while five board positions could change hands by next year as several commissioners face upcoming elections and Board President White seeks a City Court judgeship.
None of these challenges definitively portends that RCSD will fail to iron out its special education wrinkles. Its third try at a consent decree could be the charm.