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Report: SF School District Violated Special Education Laws

Parents say state has failed to enforce regulations

The San Francisco Unified School District has violated more than 100 special education regulations in the past year, according to a recent report by the California Department of Education. The violations include failing to properly assess students’ disabilities, implement federally mandated services and employ qualified staff to work with special-needs students.

According to the report, the district has failed to adhere to "individualized education programs," legally binding agreements between the district and parents that detail how it will meet the needs of students.

“They’re not implementing their IEPs as written,” said Donna DeMartini, an education programs consultant for the Department of Education. “It’s a huge problem.”

DeMartini and Elizabeth Blanco, who joined the district in February as assistant superintendent of special education, discussed the report with parents last week at a meeting of the district's Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. DeMartini told the group that the department reviewed 85 randomly chosen files of children and found 502 violations of 106 state education code regulations.

Blanco acknowledged the problems raised in the report, but said a system as large as the San Francisco school district “doesn’t change overnight.”

“We have a lot of work to do to make San Francisco special education better for parents, students and support staff,” Blanco said. “The district has had a long standing mistrust with parents of special education students, along with teachers.”

More than 6,000 students with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities attend San Francisco public schools. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed by Congress in 1990, requires school districts to provide those children with a “free and appropriate education” from the age of three.

Some parents blame state regulators for the district's failure to comply with the special education laws.

“When citizens break the law, they go to jail, but when the district does it, nothing happens,” said Katy Franklin, the mother of a child with autism and the chairwoman of the committee. “What the California Department of Education does to remedy school district noncompliance is equivalent to swatting the flies instead of removing the crap from the room."

Franklin, along with other parents, is part of a lawsuit filed last month, claiming that school districts across California are failing to comply with federal laws without reprisal from the state and spending taxpayer dollars on outside law firms to fight families seeking services for their children.

 One elementary school student in San Francisco, named in the suit as “Margaret K.," suffers from Rett syndrome, a nervous system disorder that leads to developmental regression. Margaret has trouble walking and needs assistance to keep moving in order to prevent osteoporosis and respiratory problems, but staff at the school have refused to work with her, said Jill Kimbrough, the child’s mother.

“It’s been a hardship for us,” Kimbrough said, adding that she and her husband have kept their daughter home from school most of the year to ensure that she stays healthy. “We asked the district to hire people who could work with her, but they haven’t been able to do it.” 

At one point, the suit alleges, a district staff member said Margaret would have to be strapped to a chair on occasion in order to give the staff a chance to take a break. 

Rony Sagy, the attorney who filed the suit, said that despite the new state report, the Department of Education has failed to hold school districts accountable to students like Margaret. 

“You can write on paper whatever you want, but that’s not compliance,” she said. “The school districts are noncompliant, they remain noncompliant and the only thing the CDE does is note that they’re noncompliant.”

DeMartini disagreed.

"That’s not true,” she said, adding that the new report requires the district to “make substantive changes that will directly impact kids.”

According to DeMartini, the district must now bring all of the files that were reviewed into full compliance by May 22. Otherwise the Department of Education will consider sanctions that would decrease state funding for the district. Additionally, she said, the district must provide its staff with training based on the violations noted in the report.

The state report echoed findings of an evaluation of the district's special education practices by independent auditors in 2010. Many families, the auditors wrote, viewed district staff as “obstructionists and more interested in controlling costs for the district than making sure that children receive the supports they need in order to succeed in school.”

Kimbrough said that, since Blanco’s arrival, the assistant superintendent has been “supportive and committed to helping” her daughter. The district has since offered to pay for Margaret to attend a private school but Kimbrough said the available schools in San Francisco were not adequate to meet the child’s needs. One suitable program in Burlingame was full.

“The district is not set up to handle all of the kids it’s supposed to handle,” Kimbrough said.

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