Investigation: Students In Special Ed Languish In Homebound Program
HARTFORD, Conn. — Hundreds of children with special needs across Connecticut who could be in school are instead languishing in an obscure tutoring program called Homebound that is supposed to be used as a last resort, according to a report by the state Office of the Child Advocate released this week.
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan examined 17 of the state’s 206 school districts for the 2014 and 2015 school years. There was an average of 550 kids in Homebound in each of those years for the 17 districts — a number that Eagan said she found alarmingly high.
Included in the total were 120 elementary school children.
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Eagan said the students, on average, were staying in Homebound too long. Some remained in the program for more than six months.
Designed for children too ill to attend school, the program’s borders have meandered over time to encompass kids with autism, depression, attention deficits and intellectual disability.
Federal law requires that children with special needs receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. Homebound, said Eagan, is considered among the most restrictive.
She said it appears anxiety disorders and phobias, such as a fear of going to school, are also driving parents and children to seek Homebound instruction in greater numbers, contrary to a program first developed for children who been receiving hospital care.
The state law, refined in 2013, says Homebound instruction can only be used when a child has “such a profound or acute” medical or mental health impairment “that the child cannot be in any educational setting.”
Yet the child advocate’s investigation found that children who were approved for special education classes in school were still placed in Homebound instruction — “for non-medical reasons.”
Among the placements reviewed, Eagan found instances in which the two most fundamental components of the Homebound program were missing — the written statement from a child’s doctor saying the student can’t function in school even with reasonable accommodations, and the individualized education program, or IEP, that shapes a child’s curriculum.
Both are required by law and are necessary if the program is to ever have success, Eagan said.
Eagan conferred with local and state school officials, counselors, probation officers, lawyers and parents during the investigation and found there was disagreement over the interpretation of the Homebound law. She said there needs to be clearer language about precisely when a child can be removed from school, what the prerequisites are, and who should be notified.
Children in the Homebound program are supposed to receive up to two hours of daily instruction by a tutor provided or approved by the school district — but Eagan said the quality of oversight by the districts varied greatly.
Eagan looked at a sample of 17 school districts across Connecticut — urban, suburban and rural. She did not name the districts in her report. She said her aim was to survey the issue rather than do a targeted investigation, and when her office asked for two years’ worth of data for the Homebound program, the districts were told they would not be identified.
Eagan said the study was a response to concerns raised by the placement over the last several years of certain students with disabilities into Homebound instruction, including Sandy Hook School shooter Adam Lanza’s experience in the program.
Eagan wrote that the results of the review “are troubling due to high numbers of students … on Homebound status … and the lack of medical documentation/justification.”
In a related finding, Eagan reported that more than 50 children in foster care were in the Homebound program across Connecticut, and that 63 percent of them had been approved for special education classes in school.
Eagan said school systems need to be certain that their Homebound regulations comply with state law, and use the program only as a temporary placement.
She said officials must frequently review each Homebound placement and put the child back in classes as soon as possible.
“There should be documentation in the child’s record regarding the basis for, and the expected duration of, each homebound placement,” Eagan wrote.
There should also be a listing of the alternatives that were considered, and a description of the support that each Homebound child will receive from the school district, Eagan wrote.
She said school districts must document the tutoring that a child is getting, including the hours of instruction and the curriculum used.
© 2017 The Hartford Courant
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