Special Ed Chief Takes Leave of Absence
Departure Comes Amid Judge's and Teachers' Criticisms of Services for Special Needs Students

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

The D.C. school system's deputy chancellor for special education, Phyllis Harris, has taken a leave of absence for unspecified reasons.

Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said personnel regulations prohibited her from discussing the nature of Harris's leave, which began Tuesday. She did deny a report, posted Wednesday on the blog The Washington Teacher, that Harris had been fired.

Efforts to reach Harris at her office and home this week were unsuccessful.

Her leave comes less than two weeks after a federal judge admonished the District for its lack of progress in serving children with learning disabilities and physical or behavioral challenges.

On Sept. 3, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said the District was failing to comply with a 2006 court order to eliminate a backlog of cases involving hundreds of schoolchildren waiting for special education services. The order was part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit, Blackman v. District of Columbia, brought by parents seeking help for their children.

The District has almost 11,000 special education students, including about 2,300 who have been placed in private schools at taxpayers' expense because the city cannot meet their needs.

Friedman, responding to a report by court-appointed monitors, also said the District's approach seemed disorganized. "My fundamental problem here is the lack of accountability, lack of coordination, lack of oversight, a lack of specific people who are rolling up their sleeves to get the job done," Friedman said.

He said he planned to order Rhee and State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist to return and explain in more detail how they were addressing the problem.

Harris's leave also comes amid complaints from teachers that special education programs at several schools are suffering from staff shortages. Instructors have told the Washington Teachers' Union that at several schools, including Garfield and Ferebee-Hope elementary schools in Southeast Washington, that special education classes lack certified instructors. In some cases, union officials said, social workers are working as substitute teachers in classes for emotionally disturbed children.

Iverson said Rhee's office was working to fix the problems.

"The chancellor has made it a priority to have appropriate staffing in every classroom," Iverson said Friday. "We . . . expect to be at appropriate levels shortly."

Rhee named Harris, previously a special education coordinator for the Oakland, Calif., school system, to the deputy post last fall. Despite her current title, much of the significant work on compliance with the requirements of the Blackman lawsuit was actually led by another top Rhee aide, Richard Nyankori, according to court monitors Amy Totenberg and Clarence J. Sundram.

Harris did not respond to requests for an interview after the monitors' report was filed Aug. 28. Asked again at the Sept. 3 hearing, Harris told a reporter, "Call me in a month."

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