State: Manchester Schools Violated Special-Education Laws

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MANCHESTER — An investigation by the state Department of Education has found that school officials failed to appropriately identify disabled students and misrepresented special-education requirements for fear of losing funding.

The district was notified of the state’s findings in a letter dated Feb. 18 to Shelly Matfess, assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services.

Based on the findings, “it is recommended that staff training be conducted to address specific issues and ensure the district’s future compliance with special education laws,” Michael J. Tavernier of the state Bureau of Special Education wrote.

The state investigation was prompted by a complaint in October 2013 from Manchester teachers union President Thomas Nicholas, who contended that special-education administrators were predetermining students’ primary disability categories instead of using the required process.

The complaint is related to a state finding in May 2013 that the district had “a significant disproportionality in black students being identified as intellectually disabled.”

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, a district identified as having such a disproportion must reserve 15 percent of its IDEA funds to provide early-intervention services for students who have not been identified as needing special education, but still require additional academic and behavioral support.

Nicholas provided supporting documents for his complaint, including:

•A letter from a staff member about a student at Manchester High School who was “struggling with behavior and academics during her freshman year,” but was not referred for special-education services.

•A letter to Nicholas from an elementary school staff member who wrote that she felt people perceived her to be ‘keeping kids out” of special education.

•A November 2012 email from Julie Tjagvad, the town’s elementary special-education supervisor, about a new student from New York state who had been identified as intellectually disabled. “His exceptionality MUST be changed in PPT [the planning and placement team] before Dec. 12 for us to be in compliance for over-identification of ID. If this change is not made, we will lose funding and several teaching, psych … positions that are funded thru the grant,” Tjagvad wrote, according to the state investigation.

Nicholas also provided several emails concerning questions about whether students should be identified as having intellectual disabilities (ID) or multiple disabilities (MD). The state found that decisions to change the primary disability category from ID to MD for three students were unsupported, Tavernier wrote.

Also, Tjagvad’s directives in emails sent in 2012 violate federal law “as they suggest the predetermination of a student’s exceptionality, exclude the parent(s) from the decision making process and undermine the authority of the PPT,” the state found.

Emails from Tjagvad and Matfess to the staff about losing funding and personnel because of disproportionality in the number of minority students identified as intellectually disabled were inaccurate and “misrepresented the extent of the sanction,” the state found.

“While there is a fiscal impact on the district due to an identification of significant disproportionality, IDEA funds are redirected, and not withheld,” Tavernier wrote.

The state laid out several corrective actions the district must take, including notifying all administrators and special-education staff about the requirements of special-education laws and undertaking reviews of decisions to change the primary disability categories of three students. The state also recommended that the staff receive training on such issues as “eligibility decision making.”

Interim School Superintendent Richard Kisiel said Thursday night that the district is complying with the state’s requirements and recommendations.

By Jesse Leavenworth, Hartford Courant.

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