Four Houston-area school districts failed to meet federal requirements in truancy cases for students with special needs, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The findings follow a complaint filed on behalf of seven students with special needs who, advocates argued, were pushed out of school using truancy charges rather than given the special education services they are entitled to.

“The districts are using the truancy process as a way to get rid of students who in the district’s view are difficult to handle,” said Michael Harris, senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, one of three nonprofits behind the May complaint. Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas also were involved.

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The complaint looked at students identified as eligible or potentially eligible for special education services. Instead of receiving the service required, argued the complaint, students’ needs were neglected as attendance issues piled up. Truancy charges were then used to effectively force them into alternative programs, including homeschooling or GED programs with low-passage rates for special education students, who are entitled by federal law to receive adequate public education until the age of 22.

“Almost no one finishes,” said Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas. “We need to call that what that really is, which is forcing students to drop out.”

Violations found

Though the initial complaint filed in the spring named 13 school districts, the TEA investigated and found federal law violations in four districts — Houston Independent School District, Fort Bend, Pasadena and Clear Creek — where individual students were identified.

For students facing truancy charges who are or may have special needs, explained Lewis Cohen, districts have to determine whether they are getting the services required by law.

“They didn’t do that in any of these cases,” said Cohen, spokesman for the California-based National Center for Youth Law.

The TEA findings describe students with a range of diagnoses from Asperger’s syndrome to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, not being properly evaluated, receiving inadequate individualized education plans that did not address the causes of truancy or, in some cases, being pushed into GED programs that would be difficult for the student to complete.

In two cases, Houston ISD officials also violated the students’ rights to adequate education by failing to inform their parents of their right to re-enroll in school, according to the NCYL.

The TEA identified required corrective actions for each case as well as across the districts, including re-evaluations, one-on-one tutoring and other measures to ensure the students received adequate public education.

“The districts’ refusal to address the needs of students with disabilities were directly linked to truancy prosecutions and school pushout,” Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the relief for the students identified in our complaint and the consistency of the findings across these districts. More importantly, we hope that the corrective actions required by TEA will end the abuse of the truancy process.”

Districts respond

The district with the most students named in the complaint, Houston ISD, said that it has already implemented new training for principals on truancy, special education, and admission, review, and dismissal meetings.

“We have reviewed the report and will comply with the recommendations,” spokeswoman Holly Huffman said.

After investigating three students in the complaint, the state agency is requiring the district to revise the individualized education plan for one student and encourage two other students to re-enroll with updated evaluations.

The agency also recommended Houston ISD revise its policy to include clearer guidelines on when a truancy filing triggers a re-evaluation and required training for staff at Worthing High School, Sterling High School and Advanced Virtual Academy. The district has until the end of the month to provide a plan for implementing corrective actions by Oct. 30, 2016.

Meanwhile, Fort Bend ISD, which was accused of pushing a special education student into homeschooling, said in a statement, “Efforts are already underway to ensure we are supporting this student.” The district also said it will work with TEA to ensure proper policies are followed for all students.

That student struggled in school after she stopped taking medication for her ADHD while she was pregnant. Eventually put on bed rest, the student still received a truancy complaint, her fourth, a month before giving birth.

The investigation found that many of the student’s issues with truancy and academic performance were chronic and that the district had not done enough to assess whether she was eligible for individualized services.

In addition to working with that student, the district must also provide training to help personnel determine when a student’s behavior, performance or absenteeism might trigger interventions. The district was given until Sept. 30, 2016 to complete the corrective actions.

The investigation also found that in the case of a student from Pasadena ISD, the district failed to adequately evaluate the student and “did little” to determine the cause of chronic absenteeism.

The agency said the district was required to offer the student an evaluation and one-on-one tutoring.

The district said it is committed to providing quality education for all students added in its statement,

“The student who is the subject of the allegations is no longer in Pasadena ISD. However, Pasadena ISD has retested the student at the district where the student currently attends school.” The student is still awaiting the results of that evaluation.

The agency also required the district to submit a plan to review its policies and provide technical assistance and training to relevant staff by Sept. 30, 2016. That plan has been submitted and approved, according to Pasadena officials.

But it’s Clear Creek ISD that advocates said had one of the most troubling cases and which is fighting the agency’s decision.

Clear Creek is the only district that asked the agency to reassess its findings, saying the TEA “may not have appreciated important facts involving the particular circumstances of the student that was the subject of the complaint.”

There, a student with Asperger’s, bipolar disorder and ADHD was being forced into a GED program, according to the complaint. Rather than deal with the underlying causes of the student’s absenteeism, argued the complaint, the district was pushing the student into a program with little chance of success.

The investigation said it was “very troubling that the truancy officer recommended that the court order the student to attend a GED program when, by her own admission, she did not know the student.”

The agency is requiring the district to offer the student a reevaluation that will address not only psychological needs but also the underlying causes of the student’s absenteeism. The district must also offer one-on-one tutoring for the student, as well as revise its districtwide policies to be clearer about the rights of students eligible for special education and conduct staff training. The district was given until Nov. 12 to produce a plan to implement the changes by Oct. 15, 2016.

“I am very disturbed that Clear Creek ISD has asked the TEA for reconsideration,” Rynders said. “In our complaint, the facts from Clear Creek were some of the most egregious.”

Other districts named in the initial complaint included Abilene, Austin, Conroe, Ector County, Fort Worth, Galena Park, Galveston, San Antonio and Victoria. Galena Park, which also had a student named in the complaint, chose to revise its own policies and institute changes instead of wait for a decision from the agency.

Problems linger

Texas has been in the spotlight recently for its high level of truancy cases. And though recent changes to state law decriminalized the charge for students and put in place more district interventions prior to referring students to court, advocates said the use of truancy charges to force special education students out of school is still a problem.

“The law did not change the ability of the district to ask the court to put kids in GED programs or to put them in home schools, and we found in our observations that those were two areas that were very ripe for abuse,” Harris said. “Those two loopholes still exist; we’re very worried that school districts will continue to use that.”

Under the new law, parents of truant students can still face fines under a tiered system. A first offense comes with a fine of $100, which can be increased by $100 for each new offense up to $500.

But that’s still a hefty price tag to many.

One complainant in Houston ISD was repeatedly marked absent due to a recordkeeping error, Rynders said. His family was homeless.

“He was repeatedly referred to a court where they were fined so even though $100 is less than $500, to a homeless family there is really no distinction.”

Advocates pledged to continue to identify special education students who are being pushed out of Texas schools.

“We observed courts throughout the state of Texas and what we found was, statewide, there is a problem,” he said.

Staff writer Ericka Mellon contributed to this report.

© 2015 the Houston Chronicle
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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