PORTLAND, Maine — Maine schools are failing to provide legally required services to students with disabilities at record-high rates as districts struggle with staffing shortages made worse by the pandemic, according to complaint data and interviews with advocates and educators.

The number of complaints about schools not providing disability services more than doubled in the past two years and is on pace to rise again this year. The number of complaints is small compared with the total number of students receiving disability services, but advocates say the complaints to state and federal agencies represent a very small percentage of the students not receiving legally required services.

Between July 2019 and June 2020, the year the pandemic hit, 39 complaints of disability service violations were filed with the Maine Department of Education. During the first full year of pandemic learning, that number jumped to 72, and in the second year, it rose to 83. Between July 1 and late October, the department received 36 parent complaints, and with eight months left of the school year it is on track to far surpass the number of complaints filed last year. Between 2008 and 2020, around 60% of complaints filed in Maine resulted in findings of noncompliance.

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Federal and state laws require that all students be provided an appropriate public education, including students with disabilities who may need individualized services. Advocates and parents of children with disabilities say getting school districts to comply with the laws has always been an uphill battle, but that the problem has grown in the past three years, first because of pandemic-related disruptions and now because of a shortage of educators.

“How we educated kids with disabilities was not great prior to COVID. It’s gotten worse,” said Lauren Rhim, the executive director of the Center for Learner Equity, a national nonprofit that advocates for children with disabilities.

It’s not possible to say precisely how often school districts in Maine or other states fall short in providing students with disabilities appropriate education because the data only include instances when a parent, guardian or other group files a formal complaint with their state or the federal Department of Education.

Complaints recorded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights have been in the thousands nationwide each year since 2006, when the federal government started tracking complaints. There is no federal data available for the current school year or the previous two. However, advocates say it’s clear that schools across the nation are struggling more than ever to find enough special education educators to support students with disabilities.

Worsened by COVID-19

There has long been an educator shortage in the United States, but the pandemic intensified it. And the shortage of those who work with students with disabilities — special education teachers, specialists such as occupational and speech therapists, and education technicians — is particularly sweeping.

Those scarcities have left some of the nation’s most vulnerable students without the basic support and resources they need to succeed, and they have left school districts that are legally required to provide appropriate services to students with disabilities unable to find the staff to provide them.

Portland, the state’s largest school district, serving roughly 1,000 special education students and 6,400 students, has been hard hit.

“Like districts across the region, state and country, we’ve struggled to fill all our open positions,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said at a September school board meeting. He said the district was still searching for “a significant number” of teachers, therapists and other specialists and around 30 educational technicians for its special education program.

Education technicians, who primarily assist students with disabilities by providing individualized or small group lessons and behavior support, are especially in short supply. That is partly because they earn an hourly wage of between $15.89 and $27.56 depending on education and experience, salaries comparable to what they might earn working at some fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Chipotle.

The Portland school district didn’t respond to multiple emails requesting details on how many open ed tech and other educator positions remain. Botana said at a school board meeting earlier this month that “full staffing continues to be a struggle.” In an effort to fill vacancies, the district held a hiring fair, is considering splitting full-time jobs between multiple part-time employees, and is offering a $1,000 referral bonus to Portland staff if a candidate they refer to the district gets hired and remains for the entire school year.

Botana said in an email that the district is working to manage the educator shortage and is “deeply committed to providing appropriate public education to all our students, including the most vulnerable of our disabled students.”

But some parents worry that as Portland’s educator shortage drags on, their children are falling behind.

Every day for the first few weeks of school this fall, Jennifer Grant’s fourth-grade daughter came home from Portland’s Rowe Elementary School crying, Grant said.

Grant’s daughter, whose name Grant requested not be published, is dyslexic and unable to write her full name. According to her individualized education program — a legally binding document outlining the services a student with disabilities must receive from their school district — she should have access to a computer program that helps her say what she wants to write. She also should have the support of education technicians specially trained to use the program, and trained to help with other needs such as math and writing support.

But when Grant’s daughter arrived at Rowe this year, her disability services weren’t in place.

“She wasn’t getting the help she needed,” Grant said. “She was drowning.”

Botana said Grant’s daughter’s services were provided on schedule and at the start of the school year. But emails between Grant and her daughter’s special education teacher, and between Grant and Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, indicate that most services did not begin until at least four weeks into the year. Grant says they are still not all being appropriately provided.

‘Taking steps backwards’

Ten ed techs and classroom teachers who spoke with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution from the school district, said Grant’s daughter isn’t alone. They said the school system is failing to provide appropriate individual education program services to many, if not all, Portland students with disabilities. The problem, they say, is that there isn’t enough staff to manage classrooms and provide the individual and small group services required by many student’s IEPs.

The parent of a student in one of Portland’s specialized education programs for those with more acute disabilities said they’ve seen their child, who has autism, regress over the course of the school year because of a lack of classroom support.

“Behaviors we haven’t seen in a long time are coming back,” the parent said. “(They’re) having real academic struggles. I am fearful we are taking steps backwards.”

The parent said Portland officials acknowledged that the child wasn’t getting appropriate services but that the staffing shortage meant the district would not be able to immediately remedy the problem. The district did not respond to a series of questions asking whether any Portland student IEPs were being unfulfilled and whether it was possible that Portland educators told parents their children’s IEPs were not being met because of the staff shortage.

Because IEPs range from services such as once-a-week math support to constant one-on-one support to manage behavioral or medical issues, IEPs can go unfulfilled in many different ways.

A Portland attorney who represents students with disabilities and their families said she’s seeing more cases than ever in which students are being entirely excluded from school.

Before the pandemic, Amy Phalon usually took cases for parents whose children had small sections of their IEPs going unmet, she said. Now she’s taking cases in which some parents are keeping kids home because they don’t think there is appropriate staffing in the school to keep them safe.

She’s also taken cases this year involving students with physical disabilities, with Type 1 diabetes or feeding tubes, for instance, who need nursing services and are unable to go to school on some days because the nurse is either out or dividing their time between another school. Phalon has also taken cases involving students with attention deficit disorders who were sent home in the afternoons because schools couldn’t provide one-on-one support.

An attorney for Maine’s nonprofit protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities said he’s seeing the same patterns as Phalon. He says students with disabilities who miss out on school are the ones who need the most and wind up getting the least.

“It just doesn’t make sense that a kid should have less school if they’re struggling to regulate their emotions or behavior,” Disability Rights Maine attorney Ben Jones said. “If a kid is struggling with reading, do you tell them to stop reading or do you provide reading support? If a kid is struggling behaviorally in the afternoon, do you take away their access to education in the afternoon or do you provide additional support?”

Disability Rights Maine has seen such a sharp increase in requests for education-related legal advocacy this year compared with recent years that they’ve had to turn away almost all cases except the most extreme — students with disabilities who are being denied access to full school days, Jones said. Many of those students are receiving “little to no education,” he said.

Attracting workers

To address this problem, the Maine Department of Education is working to bolster its education workforce.

Starting in January, the department plans to offer two five-week courses on behavioral supports and interventions to 200 ed techs. Ed techs who successfully complete the course and implement what they learn will be eligible for $2,500 in stipends paid for with federal COVID-19 relief money.

“The Maine Department Education continues its commitment to supporting school administrative units as the state navigates workforce shortages and the behavioral needs of students,” the department said in a statement.

But the educator shortage isn’t the only roadblock school districts are facing in fulfilling IEPs: the federal government has for years underfunded special education services.

When Congress passed in 1975 what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — the nation’s primary special education law — the federal government said it would cover 40% of the average per-pupil expenditure for K-12 students for each student with a disability. But Congress never followed through on that promise. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the latest for which funding data is available, the federal government covered only 13% of the additional cost of educating the nation’s 7.3 million students with disabilities, with the rest of the burden placed on state and local governments.

At the same time, the number of students with disabilities in both Maine and the U.S. has steadily risen since 1975. During the 2021-2022 school year, there were 32,661 K-12 students in Maine receiving disability services and around 7 million in the U.S. Ten years prior, there were 6.5 million students in the U.S. receiving disability services.

The result, advocates say, is that students with disabilities across the country are being underserved by the public education system, falling further behind their peers and being set up for failure rather than for successful and independent lives.

Having run into trouble getting her children’s individualized education programs met in the past, and ultimately filing formal complaints against the Portland school district with the Maine Department of Education, Jennifer Grant set up a meeting with the principal and assistant principal of Rowe before this school year even began. Both officials declined a request from the Press Herald for an interview.

Grant has two children with disabilities enrolled in Rowe — her daughter, who has dyslexia, and her son, who has Tourette syndrome, a condition of the nervous system that causes sensitivity to light, dizziness and other vision problems and generalized learning challenges.

“Every year (my children) have been in public school, I have had to fight with everything I have to make sure they get their needs and IEPs met,” Grant said. “Every year I think it’s going to be different, but then it’s not.”

She hopes that filing a complaint with the Department of Education and going through a formal mediation process will help turn things around for her kids, but Grant said she’s worried about how much her children may have already fallen behind and that she’ll have to go through the same exhausting process next year. She said she also worries about students with parents who don’t have the time to find out if and why their children aren’t getting the appropriate services and to fight for them to receive them.

“If I am in the physical school building volunteering and fighting for my kids to receive their IEP services and they’re still not getting them, what is happening to all the other kids who are supposed to be getting individualized education plan services?”

© 2022 Portland Press Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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