Staff No-Shows Decried as Rhee Aide Testifies

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The District's top special education official testified in federal court yesterday that some school personnel ignore scheduled meetings with parents, contributing to the city's failure to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities or behavioral challenges.

Richard Nyankori, acting deputy chancellor for special education, said the backlog of D.C. children awaiting special education services is lengthy in part because school staff don't show up for meetings, leaving cases unresolved and parents in the lurch.

"Sometimes it is willful on the part of some staff not to make it to meetings," Nyankori said under questioning from U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Friedman called the hearing to quiz officials about the District's lack of progress in complying with a 2006 consent decree that settled a class action brought by parents of children with learning problems. The District's public and public charter schools have nearly 11,000 special education students. About 20 percent attend private schools, at a cost to taxpayers of about $200 million, because D.C. cannot meet their needs.

Friedman had ordered D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and D.C. State Schools Superintendent Deborah A. Gist to answer questions he included in an order this month.

Rhee was not present because her flight back from California had been canceled, officials said. Testifying in her place was Nyankori, a Rhee deputy who worked for her at the New Teachers Project, the nonprofit group she founded and ran before coming to the District.

Friedman did not press Nyankori on the issue of staff no-shows at meetings, and Nyankori did not elaborate.

In an interview after the hearing, Nyankori said that many special education coordinators, teachers and other service providers take their duties seriously and that sometimes "workload or not understanding what the procedures are" can lead to meetings not occurring.

But Nyankori added, "I think we encounter indifference."

He said that the problem was most prevalent in high schools and that he and Rhee have warned principals that they will be held accountable for staff members who shirk their responsibilities.

"We've handed down the charge," he said.

Candi Peterson, a social worker at Garfield Elementary and a member of the board of trustees of the Washington Teachers' Union, disputed Nyankori's claims.

"That happens to be a lie, for lack of a better word," she said.

Peterson, who has worked in D.C. schools for 16 years, said no-shows are rare. "From my experience, providers are pretty conscientious about showing up. I hate to say this, but I think they're looking for some justification for their lack of compliance."

The lawsuit, Blackman v. District of Columbia, contended that families faced unreasonable delays in getting special education services. The decree required the District to reduce the backlog of decisions by hearing officers retained to mediate disagreements between parents and school officials over appropriate levels of services for children.

Despite repeated admonitions by Friedman, implementation of 584 hearing officer decisions is more than 120 days overdue. The consent decree calls for that backlog to be eliminated by the end of the year, which is unlikely to happen.

In written answers filed with the court late last week, Rhee said the school system has hired and trained 10 new compliance case coordinators, or "expediters," to speed implementation of hearing officer decisions and resolve disagreements. An additional five are to be hired by year's end.

Rhee said in the written responses that if case closure goals are not met, "termination will be swift."

The Blackman consent decree also called for the District to begin bringing back to D.C. schools some of the 2,359 special education students in private schools. Rhee has promised to begin reversing the outflow of students by next year. She has launched two pilot initiatives -- one in several elementary schools and the other in a group of middle schools -- in which special education students receive individual instruction as part of an intensive program involving social workers and psychologists.

Nyankori called the concentration of D.C. special education students at specialized private schools "a civil rights violation," because the law requires that such children be in the least restrictive environment. He said he has spoken with children who have told him, "I could succeed in a mainstream school."

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