The Connecticut Department of Education has determined that the Bridgeport school district systematically failed to identify students eligible for special education and must now take corrective action.
The state conducted an investigation in response to an October 2013 complaint filed by the Center for Children's Advocacy and determined that the district violated its obligations to students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and state law. The 2012-13 school year dominates most examples cited in the complaint. This was the year when there was an effort to reduce special education costs under outgoing Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas.
According to Linda Conner Lambeck of ctpost.com, the city school district must submit a formal response to the state.
"We are pleased and find it promising that the district is taking steps to remedy the situation," said Edwin Colon, an attorney for the advocacy group. "There is recognition, and steps have been taken to improve services."
Every school district must identify, locate and evaluate all students who need, or are suspected to need, special education or related services, under federal law. According to Colon, students who are chronically failing, misbehaving or absent should receive evaluations.
To address student failing issues, the advocacy center, which has offices in Bridgeport, has been working with the district for some time. However, as Colon put it, things aren't getting better.
"Every year we saw the failures getting worse rather than better, despite our repeated legal actions on behalf of individual clients," Colon said.
He added that a shrinking number of school staff, social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists made the problem worse.
Nonetheless, the district has commissioned Cooperative Education Services to conduct an audit of the district's special education program since the complaint was filed. To improve accountability at the school building level, the district also has a team of central office staff working.
"We had some schools doing what they were supposed to and others not. The state wants to know how we are going to monitor it from the central office," said Robert Arnold, director of special education for the district. "We have developed a plan of action to prevent this from happening going forward."
To find all students who qualify for special services in a district where the vast majority of students are deemed to be at risk, Arnold called it a massive undertaking.
Developing a corrective action plan that includes a policy and procedures to ensure that all students in need are identified and evaluated is another requirement for the district. The state said the evaluation cannot be delayed while general education interventions are tested. More PPT meetings have to be prepared by the district, as well.
The state will review the district's corrective action plan and expects district staff to get "significant training and guidance" to implement the plan.
In addition, a full list of all students on homebound instruction, along with information on whether those students have been determined to be disabled and eligible for special education and related services, is requested by the district.