When Karen Griffin’s daughter first entered the Killeen Independent School District at 3½ years old, the district performed a speech test on the child.
Since she was receiving speech therapy outside of school, the district said it could provide services.
KISD did not provide any further testing on Griffin’s daughter, whom Griffin would like to remain unnamed, despite the family mentioning several areas of concern with the child’s academic performance and development.
“Every teacher until first grade would say, ‘We see that but I don’t think it’s hindering her,’” Griffin said.
Last school year, the child’s first-grade teacher, who is also teaching her for second grade this school year, was the first educator to suggest she might be dyslexic and requested testing.
The KISD diagnostician said the child is not dyslexic, even though the child’s scores were low enough to make Griffin question the validity of the testing.
Griffin then requested recommendations for an independent educational evaluation to be performed, which would force the district to refer her to an outside evaluation source that might disagree with their diagnostician.
“That is when they decided that they would do the whole evaluation on her,” Griffin said, referring to a full special education evaluation. “They only have until the end of September to gather all the results.”
Stories like Griffin’s are evidence of ongoing changes happening in Texas special education, particularly pertaining to dyslexic students.
Griffin said her case represents a violation of the Child Find mandate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Services said many Texas school districts are not following.
The federal special education office released a report earlier this year saying the Texas Education Agency failed to comply with the law that obligates schools to identify and provide full evaluation for all children with learning disabilities, regardless of the severity of those disabilities, including those with suspected dyslexia.
The report said there is “a systemic problem” in Texas, noting several cases of dyslexic children like Griffin’s daughter being denied that proper evaluation and provision of services under federal special education law.
Many dyslexic children across the state were instead being directed to services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or Response to Intervention programs.
These services do not require a more extensive special education referral and are meant to help struggling students succeed in the general education setting without individualized education plans.
As a response to the federal report, the TEA has issued several letters to all school districts over the last several months, saying the state dyslexia handbook is being revised and urging Texas school districts to come into compliance with the federal law in the meantime, if they weren’t already.
The letters also included a corrective action plan to ensure schools are actively identifying and fully evaluating children suspected of being dyslexic or struggling with other related learning disabilities.
DISTRICTS MUST MEET
CHILD FIND MANDATES NOW
Handbook revisions are not slated to be completed until November, but school districts cannot wait to receive the changes; they must meet their Child Find mandate to identify and evaluate dyslexic students now, according to the TEA.
The TEA did not provide information as of press time as to how the agency plans on checking up on the districts and what the repercussions are if districts are found to be out of compliance.
According to Terry Abbott, the Killeen Independent School District chief communications officer, KISD is currently meeting those federally mandated Child Find obligations, regardless of the status of the handbook.
“We are still awaiting receipt of the book but we are not waiting on the handbook to follow federal law,” he said.
KISD is reviewing and strengthening its Child Find outreach process and hired 20 new teachers and assessors specifically to improve its dyslexia program, Abbott said in a series of emails and an Aug. 24 news release.
“The new effort is designed to allow the district to diagnose students who are dyslexic and provide learning support for them faster,” he said.
Abbott said the number of dyslexic students being served through special education as of Aug. 31 is 540 and the number of dyslexic students being served through Section 504 is 2,110.
This means that nearly four times as many dyslexic students are still being referred to service under Section 504 within KISD.
As for students who were referred to Section 504 or services other than special education in previous school years, the district is “developing and implementing a process at the campus level to review all students who are in 504 and RtI to determine if a referral to special education is appropriate,” Abbott said, referring to services under Section 504 and Response to Intervention, neither of which entails individualized education plans as a referral to special education would.
Whether KISD is conducting these re-evaluations of students previously served under these programs because the district now believes those students were inappropriately referred to those services remains unclear.
When asked why the district is re-evaluating these particular cases, Abbott said it is part of the TEA corrective action plan.
Abbott said the re-evaluation process will also help the district collect information for a new TEA data report requirement about the number of children ages 3 to 21 who went through the special education referral/evaluation process between July 1 and June 30 of the current school year.
This process begins after districts receive an informed, written parental consent to evaluate, according to the TEA.
PARENTS’ REQUESTS AND TIMELINES FOR EVALUATION
“Parents can make a request through the classroom teacher, counselor, assistant principal, or principal and it does not need to be in writing, although it’s very helpful to have it in written form,” Abbott said when asked how parents may request a special education evaluation for their child.
He said referrals for special education occur on a rolling basis throughout the year and as needed when a disability is suspected.
Other districts in the area report similar policies.
“The parent may request evaluation at the campus or at the district office,” said Angela Kirkpatrick, Copperas Cove ISD director of special education.
She said CCISD Special Education staff and dyslexia staff work in collaboration to ensure students are evaluated in a timely manner and that students who qualify receive the appropriate services.
“A timely manner,” according to TEA standards, means a district responds to a request for a special education evaluation with 15 days with a plan of how to respond to the request. The district then has 45 days within which to evaluate.
Superintendent Michael Novotny of Salado ISD said the district evaluates students as soon as possible but always meets the legal time line of 45 days.
He said Salado parents can make a verbal request for an evaluation but are encouraged to send it in writing.
“We have 30 days from the completion of our evaluation to convene an Admission Review and Dismissal meeting and make the decision that is in the best interest of the student,” he said.
This aligns with the TEA policy regarding convening of this committee, which is a meeting of a group of people who help determine whether a student is eligible for special education and to develop the Individual Education Program for eligible students.
This special education review committee typically includes a student’s teachers for both general and special education, school administrators and parents or guardians.
Elizabeth Cox, communications and community engagement executive director for Belton ISD, said Belton parents interested in requesting a special education evaluation for their child may do so by contacting BISD’s executive director of special programs, Jennifer Ramirez at 254-215-2112.
“The district evaluates students suspected of having dyslexia and related disabilities through an educational diagnostician or a licensed specialist in school psychology in partnership with the district’s dyslexia specialists,” she said.
Cox said students identified with dyslexia will receive special education services.
Representatives for Florence and Lampasas ISDs did not respond to request for comment by press time and Gatesville ISD district officials said the information was not available as of deadline.
According to the TEA, parents suspecting their child has a disability should submit a written request for special education evaluation to the child’s school.
DYSLEXIA RIGHTS NOW
In spite of the TEA’s clarification that suspicion of dyslexia or related disorders does legally qualify children for special education evaluation/services and that school districts must actively fulfill their duty to find and evaluate those students, experts say youth across the state are still falling through the cracks.
It is estimated there are 200,000 children in Texas who are in need of services but were denied for various reasons, according to Elizabeth Angelone, managing attorney at special education law office Cuddy Law Firm’s Austin location,
“At this time, we are still receiving many calls from parents whose children have been identified as having dyslexia or a related disorder and are still being denied evaluation and consideration for special education — including in the Killeen area,” Angelone said. “In other words, we have not seen change reaching Texas students yet.”
Regina Staffa, a licensed dyslexia therapist and owner of the Austin-based Academic Therapy Center, said the burden to properly diagnose and provide services to many dyslexic children still remains in the hands of parents, despite the Child Find federal law that says this is the schools’ responsibility.
“Many of the parents I work with in private services work second and third jobs to help pay for private services because of the inadequately funded services in schools,” she said.
When asked what the issue is with schools not providing the legally mandated evaluations and services for the dyslexic population, Staffa said she believes schools have different funding priorities.
“So much money is spent on aesthetics and grand buildings in school districts and not on the substance of instruction, training and encouraging identification,” she said.
Her advice to parents seeking to advocate for their children boils down to resilience.
“Never give up; trust your instincts and the knowledge of your child,” Staffa said. “Listen to what your child says and keep asking the hard questions until you find the best resources.”