The Killeen Independent School District continues to face scrutiny after more parents have come forward claiming the district failed to provide necessary accommodations for their special-needs children.
Constance Fouch, who moved from Virginia to Texas, said her special-needs son used to make the honor roll. Now, he is struggling.
“He went from A-B honor roll to barely passing with the grace of God,” Fouch said.
Fouch said she believes her autistic son’s faltering grades are because he does not receive an equal education, blaming his school’s failure to provide special accommodations for him. In Virginia, she did not have to fight for accommodations.
Fouch said her 10-year-old son has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome and used to enjoy going to school. But his recent placement in a positive behavior skills class at West Ward Elementary has changed his outlook.
Fouch said her son gets easily overwhelmed in a mainstream school setting and often cries.
She said his crying is why he was placed in the skills class.
“West Ward has admitted they do not have the staff to educate autistic children,” Fouch said. “They threatened to send my son to an alternative school. West Ward didn’t want to deal with his crying — he’s not violent. He’s very helpful at home and in school.”
The skills class at West Ward is like a “prison cell,” as Fouch describes it, where children “are not allowed to go to recess, physical education, art, music; they can’t eat outside the classroom, and cannot go on field trips.”
West Ward “will not let him out of PBS now; he has to have so many days of PBS before he will be able to participate in one class. Then if he cries, I was told, he loses those privileges,” Fouch said.
The positive behavior skills class “is where West Ward sticks all of the autistic children. I feel like they treat him like a dirty secret. I’m not embarrassed that my son is autistic, so why should the school be?”
Fouch is not alone.
Other families said they have the same issues with Killeen ISD and districts across the state as schools often threaten to put special-needs children in disciplinary alternative education programs, or DAEPs, regardless of their special needs.
According to a 2007 report by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group, Texas school districts have disproportionately referred special-education students to alternative education programs for years.
According to the report, although special education students make up about 10 percent of Texas students, they made up 22 percent of total annual alternative education referrals, 26 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 21 percent of in-school suspension referrals in the 2005-2006 school year.
A few years later, during the 2007-2008 school year, a Texas Education Agency report to the Senate Committee on Education found that for every 100 special-education students in Texas, there were 25.1 out-of-school suspensions and 55.8 in-school suspensions, compared to 12.1 out-of-school suspensions and 33.2 in-school suspensions for nonspecial-ed students that year.
Within the district, positive behavior skills classes are found at four high schools, five middle schools and seven elementary schools, according to Killeen ISD Assistant Superintendent Diana Miller.
Positive behavior skills classes “are designed to meet the needs of students with serious behavioral and/or emotional difficulties,” Miller said. The goal of the classes is for students to return to their least restrictive environment (out-classes).”
Without additional special-education services, Fouch said, her son is missing out on a free appropriate public education, commonly referred to as FAPE — an educational right of children with disabilities in the United States guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Killeen-area attorney Rick Rousseau, with the Criss & Rousseau law firm in Harker Heights, said a disconnect exists between identifying appropriate accommodations and implementation.
“You do get some friction between what is required in a student’s (Individual Education Plan), which needs to be followed under the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), versus the practical effect — what does the school district’s budget provide,” Rousseau said.
Without appropriate special-education services, Rousseau said special-needs children are often placed in inappropriate settings, resulting in missed educational opportunities.
“From both an individual standpoint and professional — so many times special- needs kids are being pushed into behavioral problem-type classrooms. They will do (in-school suspension) or be placed in a special class for behavioral problem children. Oftentimes, their behavior problem is a result of their special needs,” Rousseau said. “If (special-needs children) get pushed into a behavioral classroom, they lose out on their education.”
Challenges of mainstreaming
Dr. Richard Connell, with Connell & Associates in Killeen, is a clinical psychologist with nearly two decades of experience under his belt. He said without special services, autistic children often face problems in a mainstream class setting.
“Generally speaking, if a child has a learning disability or mental health condition that is not recognized by the school, that child is likely to make poor grades, become very frustrated and often act out behaviorally due to feeling inadequate or ashamed,” Connell said.
“More specifically, children with autism spectrum disorder often become scared or upset in response to loud noises, such as during cafeteria time, and respond poorly to changes in routine or when transitioning from one activity to another.
“Such children can experience severe behavioral problems if their educators are not aware of their diagnosis, and make appropriate accommodations to help that child succeed in school.”
Kathleen is a West Ward Elementary parent who requested the Herald protect her identity because she feared retaliation.
Her 8-year-old son is a student at West Ward and is medically diagnosed with high-functioning autism, also known as Asperger’s syndrome. However, in the school setting, his diagnosis is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The services provided to an autistic child and an ADHD child differ greatly.
A two-part test
Texas Education Agency information specialist DeEtta Culbertson said that although a child is medically diagnosed with a disability, that disability may not qualify the child to receive special-education services in Texas.
“The first thing you have to understand is that eligibility for special-ed services is a two-part test.
“There’s the presence of a disability, and then because of the disability, there’s a need for special education and related services based on the severity of the disability,” Culbertson said.
“Just because a student has a disability does not mean they are eligible for special (education) services because their disability may not create an educational need.”
“Asperger’s can sometimes be a very mild form and that does not always equal eligibility,” she said.
Miller said medical testing and educational testing of special-needs children can vary.
“Sometimes, parents take their children to the doctor; doctors may provide a diagnosis under a different criteria from what we’re using,” Miller said. “Often, there are differences between medical diagnoses versus our diagnosis.”
Connell said he has seen this difference firsthand when evaluating autistic patients.
“Before giving a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, we always administer the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, which is considered the ‘gold standard’ in assessing children for ASD,” Connell said.
“I have never encountered an evaluation report from any school district that included this type of test.”
Lapse in testing blamed
Kathleen said a lapse in cohesive diagnostic testing between school and medical professionals may be the reason why highly functioning autistic children, such as her son, are seemingly falling through the cracks in the school system.
“His is high functioning, but after four years in school he still can’t read and can’t count to 100,” said Kathleen, who noted a friend tested her son for the talented and gifted program and he was found to qualify for TAG classes.
If given the opportunity, Kathleen said she thinks her son would succeed because, “high-functioning autistic children have a better potential of actually graduating at grade level.”
She also pointed to the issue of misinformation in the district regarding special education.
“He went to Pershing Park for pre-K. It was a nightmare as well,” Kathleen said.
“They tested him (for special-education services) and said he was just immature for his age. (Pershing Park) refused to accept his diagnosis; they led me to believe he wasn’t required (by law) to be in school for pre-K or kindergarten; therefore, he didn’t require services. I didn’t know until I came to West Ward that that wasn’t true.”
Parents’ income a factor
Kathleen said she worries for other parents like her. “Most of the (West Ward) parents are low-income and undereducated; they just don’t know what to do,” she said. “When someone with as much education as a principal says something, who is going to disbelieve them? The majority of West Ward parents don’t even have the resources, they don’t even have Internet at home.”
Kathleen’s son is prone to meltdowns — fits of uncontrollable crying — which she said gets him into bigger trouble.
“He’s the one that’s suffering, because he does not belong in a self-contained class. He’s not violent, he’s a good little kid. He just needs more one-on-one time,” Kathleen said.
“He hates school, hates it. He cries and yells. It got to the point where he will tell me he’s sick; then he would fake cough until he threw up.”
If her son does not catch up, Kathleen said the school’s administration told her he will be transferred to a life skills class at East Ward Elementary. She does not see the need for a transfer.
“Since my son can dress himself and go to the bathroom and raise his hand — no, it’s not the place for him,” she said. “At this point, it’s a nightmare. There are so many of us, at least a dozen that I have talked to personally who are not receiving special-ed services, but should be.
“Somebody needs to come in and look into special education, Kathleen said. “(West Ward) doesn’t answer to anybody. They answer to the district and the district doesn’t find a problem.”
Rousseau said funding constraints may be a culprit of the district’s special-education woes.
“At KISD, there are a number of different funding strains. All those different funding sources have tags on them in regards to what’s required under special education — it’s an administrative nightmare.”
“My experience is not that the (state) laws or regulations are lagging. The difficulty comes with implementation especially on the local level,” Rousseau said.
“Some school districts feel strapped; they do not feel they have the assets or the money to be able to implement these things. It doesn’t matter, if the law requires it — the law requires it, and the school district must go find the assets to do it.”
“Special education is one of those that has so many nuances in terms of what’s acceptable what’s not, what’s federal, what’s state, what’s local,” Culbertson said.
“If (parents) feel their child has not (received appropriate accommodations), then they file a complaint with us — that’s the easiest thing to do — and we will give them the information they need.”
For parents looking for more information on how to file a TEA complaint, go to http://tea.texas.gov/index2.aspx?id2147497560.