Prince George’s County school board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8) wants to overhaul the school district’s Special Education Department and has proposed that the school system conduct an external audit to identify areas in need of improvement.
Burroughs said the proposal is partly in response to three meetings he and board members Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) and Peggy Higgins (District 2) recently hosted to hear from parents about their experience with special education.
Burroughs said he has identified areas of improvement for the department, which last year provided services to more than 14,000 students — a little more than 11 percent of the 125,000-student body.
He said that parents during the meetings complained that some children’s Individualized Education Programs, written plans that describe the services a child with a disability needs to be successful, are not being implemented properly. They criticized the school district, accusing it of shutting them out of the special-education process and forcing them to pay for expert witnesses to attest to the need for services.
Burroughs said he wants to shift the current burden of proof from the parents to the school about services that children receive.
“My fear is that the parents that cannot afford [to go to doctors and attorneys] are not getting the services needed for their child,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”
The department has made strides in recent years, but parents and advocates say it continues to fall short. Burroughs offered his proposal for an audit during a recent policy committee meeting.
“I believe it’s clear that our special-education department is not serving the needs of the students,” said Burroughs, noting the pleas for help from parents who attended the meetings. “Our special-needs students are the most vulnerable, and it is clear there are systemic issues with that department. I believe it is important to not hide from it but to actually fix the problem. To me, it makes a lot of sense for us to pull together experts in the special-education field to do a comprehensive and systemic audit, a top-to-bottom audit of the department.”
Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said in an e-mail that neither the board nor the administration has made any decisions regarding an audit.
“Additional details about the type of audit, its scope and its rationale are needed before undertaking what could be a significant expense,” Pugh said.
Board Chairman Segun C. Eubanks said he does not support an audit of the department at this time. He said the school system should not base the need for an audit on “disturbing and anecdotal stories” from parents.
Eubanks said he agrees that examining special education needs to be one of the school board’s priorities, but he said an audit is premature. He would like the board to hear from special-education experts, parents — including those who have had problems with the department and those who have experienced success — and officials from other school systems about their programs before making any drastic moves.
“I’m just not ready to say what the key problems are, what the solutions are and if an audit is the best way to go,” Eubanks said. “Right now, I don’t see how we can jump to that conclusion without having done the homework.”
Burroughs said staff members had estimated that an audit would cost the school system about $100,000, which he called “a small amount of money” to ensure that students receive proper services.