The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fairfax students with disabilities disproportionately suspended, report says

The Fairfax County Public Schools building in Merrifield, Va., on March 4, 2019. (Matthew Barakat/AP)
4 min

Students with disabilities in Fairfax County Public Schools are more likely than their peers without disabilities to be suspended and to fail state tests, a new report has found.

The report, completed over the course of two years by nonprofit group the American Institutes for Research at a cost of roughly $463,000, was commissioned by the Fairfax school board in October 2020. The researchers examined student data, audited students’ special-education plans, held focus groups with school staff and families, surveyed parents and observed classrooms.

Some of the report’s findings were positive, including that Fairfax has “robust division-level leadership and infrastructure for special education services” and that many parents of students with disabilities report strong positive feelings about their children’s teachers. But others were sharply negative: In the time period studied, students with disabilities were 3.1 times more likely to receive an in-school suspension and 4.4 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their peers who do not have disabilities. The report also found that, between 2016 and 2019, the pass rate for state end-of-year exams was consistently 30 percent lower for students with disabilities than it was for their non-disabled peers.

The report makes several suggestions for alterations to the Fairfax special-education system, including reducing special-education teacher workload, developing more comprehensive professional development plans for special-education teachers and publishing districtwide guidance for communication between schools and parents of students with disabilities.

The report will be used as the basis for a new, overarching plan for Fairfax’s special-education students, a plan the school board is hoping to finalize in February. As a first step, the board met Tuesday to review and discuss the report with its authors. Many members praised the researchers for their work and promised a better path forward.

“This is hard, this is painful, but I do believe this is going to be our road map to the success we promise to achieve for every student,” board member Megan McLaughlin said at the meeting.

A spokeswoman for the school district wrote in a statement Tuesday evening that "we look forward to studying the recommendations put forth in the report and working collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive special education enhancement plan.”

The report examined student data between 2016 and 2019, leaving out the months of pandemic-era education — when teaching was conducted mostly online — because researchers decided that conclusions drawn from that period would not be applicable to regular in-person learning. Fairfax, which enrolls roughly 179,000 students, making it the largest school district in Virginia, serves approximately 28,000 students with disabilities, according to the report — and employs about 6,300 special-education personnel across nearly 200 schools.

The 213-page report’s positive findings also include the conclusion that Fairfax has an efficient system for identifying students with disabilities in early childhood, that many parents believe special-education services meet their students’ needs and that “parents are generally satisfied with opportunities for academic and social inclusion for their children.” The report further found that Fairfax engages in recruitment and retention efforts for special-education staff and that the district managed to retain about 90 percent of them between 2015 and 2019.

But negative findings include the fact that many new teachers in Fairfax lack preparation to adequately support their students with disabilities, that “special education services are implemented inconsistently across the district” and that progress reports for students with disabilities “do not provide sufficiently detailed, data-based information.” The report also found that Fairfax does not meet Virginia state targets for the percentage of time students with disabilities should be taught in general education classrooms, that Fairfax maintains a special education student-teacher ratio that is lower than the Virginia state average and that “communication from the district about special education can be inconsistent and difficult to access.”

At the meeting Tuesday, board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, who has long been an advocate for improving special education, said that the findings made her upset.

“I really appreciate your report, this is so validating, I’ve been saying this stuff since 2011,” she said. “I am so angry. I am so angry we’re still here.”

The report lays out 19 detailed suggestions for alterations to Fairfax’s special-education program. Many touch on communication with parents, including proposals that Fairfax develop a standardized procedure for documenting parent input when determining whether a student is eligible for special-education services and when developing a student’s special-education plan. Other suggestions include publishing guidance on “special education caseloads and class sizes” and making more information available to prospective special-education employees on the Fairfax website.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Karl Frisch asked how long it would take to implement all of the recommendations laid out in the report. One of the researchers said it would require at least three years.

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.