State investigation: Denver violated federal rules, delayed services to students with disabilities

8 min. read
Olivia Posthumus was one of the students named in the complaint against Denver Public Schools. (Courtesy of Posthumus family)

By Melanie AsmarChalkbeat 

The Denver school district violated the rights of some students with disabilities in the way it made decisions about whether they would get support from a teacher’s aide, an investigation by the Colorado Department of Education found.

Instead of allowing a team that includes teachers, specialists, and the students’ parents to make that determination, as is required by federal rules, district officials decided whether students would get paraprofessional support “outside of the team process,” the investigation found.

That slowed things down because it required more layers of approval, often leaving students to “wait weeks and months to receive the service of a paraprofessional,” according to a written decision obtained by Chalkbeat and that is expected to be made public next week.

In addition, the district was too vague when writing students’ “individualized education plans,” or IEPs, the decision says. Instead of specifying that students receive support from a paraprofessional, the district used vague or cryptic phrases such as “adult support” or “line-of-sight supervision.”

“When paraprofessional services are noted, it is in very general terms,” the decision says, “and does not provide sufficient information regarding the frequency, duration, or location.”

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed with the Colorado Department of Education by the nonprofit organization Advocacy Denver on behalf of five Denver students.

Scotty Sims’s 7-year-old daughter was one of them. Sims’s daughter, who Chalkbeat is not naming at her mother’s request, has a rare genetic disorder. She is non-verbal, and Sims said she needs a paraprofessional who understands the limited sign language she uses to communicate: signs for “eat,” “drink,” “walk.” If her daughter isn’t understood, Sims said, she gets frustrated and acts out.

Her daughter is also prone to eating objects such as chalk and paper clips, Sims said, and she needs a paraprofessional to watch her every minute to make sure she doesn’t. Sims thought that’s what her daughter’s IEP team decided on, but she said the plan was changed without her knowing to say her daughter needed “arm’s-length supervision” instead.

The plan did not specify who was supposed to provide that supervision, Sims said. As a result, her daughter did not have a dedicated paraprofessional for her kindergarten year.

“Because of that, she ate dangerous objects,” Sims said. “She did a lot of self-harming and got hurt. She regressed. … ‘Arm’s-length’ does nothing if somebody’s back is to my daughter and she’s standing right next to them. ‘Arm’s-length’ does not make for a safe day.”

The Colorado Department of Education is requiring Denver Public Schools to submit a proposed corrective action plan by Aug. 15. It must then turn in a more detailed plan for “eliminating the paraprofessional approval process” by Aug. 30, a move meant to ensure that students’ individualized education plans are followed.

By Oct. 30, the district must amend the plans of 113 students who need paraprofessional support to specify the type, amount, frequency, duration and location of those services.

In a statement, Denver Public Schools said it is reviewing the state’s decision “and working to address next steps.” The statement says, “The district is committed to reviewing its processes and documentation and assuring that they are compliant with the law.”

After learning of the decision last week, Sims said she felt validated.

“It’s not just for me,” Sims said, noting that the decision applies to all students. “I felt validated for all the families out there who don’t know that their child’s needs aren’t being met.”

Separate from this complaint, the district came under fire this year from parents and advocates concerned that an impending reorganization of the special education department would negatively affect their children. About 10,000 of the nearly 93,000 students in Denver Public Schools qualify for special education services, but only a small proportion require dedicated support from a paraprofessional.

Pam Bisceglia, the executive director of Advocacy Denver, said she decided to file the complaint after spending years helping families navigate the difficult process of getting appropriate paraprofessional services for their children.

The decision notes that of the 184 student files the state investigator reviewed in response to the complaint, “no files contained an explanation of the approval process.”

Emails reviewed by the investigator shed some light on it. In one email quoted in the decision, a school nurse was inquiring about the status of a one-on-one paraprofessional for a student with a seizure disorder. An administrator then asked the “director of operations” to fund the paraprofessional, implying that it was the director’s decision.

Bisceglia said that’s not how it’s supposed to work. The federal law, she said, “is defined in a way that the team who knows the child better than anyone else should be able to come together, identify the child’s strengths and needs, and have the authority to identify the supplementary aids and services that will be given to the child.” The district’s process, Bisceglia said, was “taking that authority away from the IEP team,” and putting it in the hands of an accountant.

The decision also notes the delay in getting services once they’re approved. That’s something 10-year-old Simone, another student included in the complaint, has experienced firsthand, according to her mother, Victoria. (Chalkbeat is not using their last name upon her request.)

Simone was adopted by Victoria at the age of 2 and a half. She spent her early years in an orphanage, and Victoria suspects that neglect, and perhaps abuse, led to a significant cognitive delay. Although Simone is going into fifth grade, she’s at a second-grade level academically.

Simone is very social, loving, and adores animals, Victoria said. But she is also fidgety and needs a lot of repetition and reinforcement to learn a new skill, Victoria said. Having the support of a paraprofessional, she said, helps keep Simone focused on her schoolwork.

For the past two years, Victoria fought to make sure Simone’s individualized education plan specified that she have an aide. But each year, she said, it took until January or February for the school to get the funding, advertise for the position, and hire someone.

Meanwhile, Simone fell behind. At one parent-teacher conference, Victoria recalls the teacher excitedly showing her the solution she came up in the interim: a pair of headphones to play music and a three-ring binder full of worksheets Simone could work on at the back of the classroom. When Victoria opened the binder, she saw every answer was wrong.

“I almost started crying,” she said.

Victoria decided to file a state complaint on her own, and then also to join the systemic complaint filed by Bisceglia. Her relief at learning the state had ruled in their favor was quickly replaced, she said, by sadness and frustration at Denver’s longrunning “systemic apathy.”

“Consistently, the impression was that this is about saving money,” Victoria said.

Jeanne Posthumus’s daughter Olivia was also part of the systemic complaint. Posthumus was told this past winter that funding for Olivia’s paraprofessional could be in jeopardy.

Olivia, who is 13 and has a rare genetic disorder, has thrived with the support of a paraprofessional to help her stay on task, transition smoothly between classes, and complete the modified lessons provided by her special education teacher, her mother said.

When Posthumus learned that could go away, she immediately called Bisceglia.

“That’s what we parents have to do is fight for our kids, day and night,” she said.

Her advocacy paid off: Olivia’s school received ongoing funding for her paraprofessional, Posthumus said. When she thinks about why that matters, she thinks not only about the benefits for Olivia but about the benefits for Olivia’s classmates, who are learning an important lesson in diversity by having students with disabilities included in their classes. That wouldn’t be possible without paraprofessionals, who are “the backbone of special education,” Posthumus said.

At the end of the year, Olivia’s classmates wrote notes to her, as if in a yearbook. Reflecting on the Colorado Department of Education’s decision, Posthumus read some aloud.

“You are the best friend anyone can ever get,” one note said.

“Even though you are so sassy, you are amazing,” said another.

“You are a role model for all of us,” yet another said. “You always express yourself to the fullest.

“Never change.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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