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FULL STORY: MDE: District 518 violated special ed requirements

WORTHINGTON — A more than four-month investigation of Independent School District 518’s special education programming found the district in violation of multiple special education requirements, some of which the district argues could have occurred at the hand of the former employee who filed the complaint.

In its recently published redacted decision, the Minnesota Department of Education found the district had violated special education requirements related to data, proper progress reporting, review and revision of individualized education plans, IEP accessibility to general education teachers, and consideration of behavior interventions and supports from Feb. 9, 2017 to February 2018. In some instances, the investigation concluded that students’ education was not negatively affected by the noncompliance.

Superintendent John Landgaard encouraged community members to read the entire report to fully understand the situation, adding that the district has proposed a strict training and monitoring regimen.

“The district is in the process of working with MDE and is looking forward to refining its processes and improving the delivery of educational services to all students,” Landgaard said Thursday.    

Former District 518 employee Karen Abbott (who has since filed a civil lawsuit against the district related to employee rights) filed the special education complaint with MDE Feb. 9. The complaint was on behalf of all students with disabilities attending school within District 518 between August 2017 and February 2018.

The complaint redacts the specific location where violations occurred.

According to court documents in the active civil suit, Abbott was employed as a special education teacher at the Area Learning Center from June 21, 2017 until Jan. 24, when she resigned, citing a hostile work environment and continuous special education violations by administrators and staff.   

The 34-page complaint decision that evaluated three reported issues was made on the basis of information provided by Abbott, the district, an onsite visit and interviews with district staff.

Between 12 and 16 students eligible for, and in need of, special education services attended the school within the investigation’s timeframe.

Three issues investigated

Among the allegations made by Abbott are that certain students did not receive the full extent of services identified in their IEP by general education teachers.

MDE’s decision outlines that in interviews with general education instructors, many consistently reported they did not immediately receive a copy of student IEPs at the beginning of the first and second quarters. Therefore, some modifications necessitated by the student IEP — specifically to assignment modification, grading and acceptance of late work without penalty — were not immediately made. A correction in grading occurred after general education teachers were notified of the IEP, the decision reports.

While a separate proceeding, in the civil suit, the district states it had several concerns regarding Abbott’s performance of job duties. That included what the district alleged as “failure to complete and/or maintain paperwork required by the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) and failure to provide educational plans to students’ regular education teachers.”

Information from MDE states Abbott served as the case manager for some of the students who qualified for special education.

According to district records included in the MDE report, Abbott emailed general education staff informing them of students that qualified for special services. However, the students’ IEPs were not attached, and she did not provide further information where to obtain them.

The district reported that when it became aware of the error, all teachers received a copy of students’ IEPs and proper accommodations, and modifications were made to address the lapse.

While MDE determined the district was noncompliant in regard to two students’ IEPs, it also noted that, due to the nature of the school’s structure — which provided smaller class sizes and individualized and modified education for all students — the special education students did not suffer any educational harm.

Abbott also claimed the district failed to review and revise students’ IEPs to address their performance and attendance record, and did not provide progress reports to parents in a timely manner.  

The district provided MDE documentation that some students’ parents received progress reports, while others had not, during various times over the investigation’s timespan.

Abbott also claimed the district did not attempt to find a solution or provide incentives to a student whom the district said had a history of “chronic absenteeism.” Staff reported that a meeting should have been scheduled sooner than February 2018 to address the student’s absenteeism.

However, the district noted to MDE that case managers are responsible to monitor student progress and convey team meetings. Abbott was employed when factors required an earlier review or students’ IEPs, the district said.

The third issue investigated included the allegation that IEP team meetings for one qualifying special education student did not include all of the appropriate advocates and providers.

MDE found the referenced meeting was meant to informally address a staffing and scheduling issue. It further notes the district did host an IEP meeting with the appropriate individuals in attendance in February.

However, the district did fail to provide special services in conformity with the student’s IEP during the first, second and portion of the third quarter, the decision states.

The district responds

MDE noted the district’s compliance with special education requirements had improved throughout the duration of the 2017-2018 school year.

The complaint decision outlines a number of instances in which the district corresponded with corrective actions it had taken before the decision was reached, including staff training through the Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative, completed Nov. 12, 2017.

The district also made several proposals to “improve its delivery of special education services and the quality of its due process procedures.”

Some of those include: at least biannual review of special education files, a communication spreadsheet, monthly guidance to the special education teacher, implement a procedure to ensure student IEPs are accessible to regular instruction teachers, review of students’ assignments and staff training.

The district is to show proof of completing these corrective measures, as well as conduct team meetings regarding special education students named in the complaint, in a timely manner.

All corrective measures outlined in MDE’s decision must be complete by June 27, 2019.