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‘Warehousing at its worst’: Rights groups say W.Va. school system gives inferior education to special-needs students


Disability rights groups are accusing West Virginia’s largest school system of providing an inferior education for students with disabilities and segregating them, according to complaints lodged with state officials.

The rights groups filed complaints with the West Virginia Department of Education on behalf of three students in June, accusing Kanawha County Schools of failing to provide the students academic and behavioral supports related to their disabilities.

The organizations, including the Arc and Disability Rights of West Virginia, say the three students’ experiences are emblematic of the school system’s widespread failure to adequately educate people with disabilities, violating federal law.

Kanawha school system officials rejected allegations that the cases are indicative of pervasive problems and said the school system is working to address the “three individual complaints involving three individual students.”

“We do not believe that the systemic problems that these organizations have alleged are happening,” said Briana Warner, a schools spokeswoman. “We are always looking to improve the education of all of our students, including our students with special needs.”

A hearing officer will render a decision on the complaints, part of a process designed to resolve disputes between parents and school systems.

Lawyers with the disability rights groups say the school system does not carry out meaningful evaluations of students’ needs. Lewis Bossing, an attorney with the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, an organization that advocates for people with mental disabilities, said students with special needs in Kanawha County are assigned activities that are not engaging, challenging or individually tailored.

“These three students are representative of problems that a lot of students in this school district and across the state of West Virginia are having,” he said. “It’s just warehousing at its worst.”

The 26,000-student school system includes Charleston, the state capital. The schools of West Virginia have been in the national spotlight for more than a year, ever since a teacher strike in February 2018 and a job action this year brought to the forefront the condition of resource-starved campuses.

Lawyers for the three students provided a copy of one of the complaints, which alleged the school system violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

According to the complaint, an 8-year-old boy who experiences challenges related to autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder hasn’t made progress in school because he was denied special-education services and given goals that are set “inappropriately low for his skill level.”

The complaint says the boy is proficient in addition and subtraction and has progressed to multiplication. But he’s relegated to tasks that aren’t ambitious enough — his current math goal states that he should “be able to subtract numbers up to 10” with 90 percent accuracy, the complaint says. With proper support, the complaint says, the boy can “learn, make progress, and realize a bright future.”

Over the course of his education, the boy has been placed in a “segregated classroom with only other students with disabilities” despite his parents’ objections and is often disciplined for behavior related to his disabilities, including four out-of-school suspensions last school year that totaled 14.5 days, the complaint alleges.

Shira Wakschlag, the Arc’s legal director, said students in Kanawha receive “behavior plans that take the form of rote checklists.” Instead, she said, officials should be devising individualized plans required by federal law to support students with special needs.

“We really need to be seeing systemic change. This is a pattern,” Wakschlag said. “This is not something that’s isolated.”

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