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State Increases Oversight of Springfield Schools Due to Special-Ed Violations

Alison Novak Feb 17, 2023 15:51 PM
Kittipak | Dreamstime
The Vermont Agency of Education will increase its scrutiny of the Springfield School District’s special-education program after the district failed to comply with state-mandated monitoring requirements.

Approximately 340 students in the Springfield School District — around 27 percent of all students — qualify for special-education services.

In a
memo posted on the Agency of Education’s website last month, state officials notified Springfield administrators that the district was being moved from “selective” monitoring to the most intensive “targeted” status. The agency also plans to randomly select and review the files of 30 Springfield students who are receiving special-education services.

And in May, Agency of Education staff will make on-site visits to the district's four schools and its preschool program.

“Our ultimate goal here is to figure out what the [district] is experiencing so that we can support them and support the students,” said Chris Kane, the Agency of Education’s interim director of special education.

The memo states that Springfield has shown noncompliance in two specific areas: evaluating students to determine special-education eligibility and completing postsecondary transition plans — federally required documents that include information about what students 16 and older will do after graduation.

The memo lays out other evidence of Springfield's noncompliance. Fifteen days before the school district was required to submit monitoring data to the state, its special education director emailed the agency asking how to access a mandatory training that had occurred months earlier, according to the memo.

When the school district did send its monitoring submissions to the state, they were “void of any and all content required (i.e. blank templates)."
The school district also failed to submit students' postsecondary transition plans, did not provide special-education services for extended periods of time and placed students in independent schools that were not approved for the students’ specific disabilities.

And during an unannounced site visit last year, the district was out of compliance with special-education regulations for prekindergarten students.

The Agency of Education is required to ensure that all school districts in the state are providing a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, in accordance with the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. This requires monitoring and enforcing regulations that govern special education programs in Vermont public schools.

There are three levels of state monitoring: cyclic, selective and targeted. Under cyclic monitoring, the state requires school districts to submit data every three years that shows they are meeting special-education requirements. If the Agency of Education determines that a district is out of compliance and the district does not fix the problems by a specified date, it is put under selective monitoring. The district must then undergo training and resubmit data.

A school district is typically put under targeted monitoring — the most stringent category — if it doesn't get back in compliance by a certain date.

Springfield is not the only school district in the state that’s currently under targeted monitoring, according to Kane, the state’s interim special-ed director, but it is the only one that is scheduled for a site visit due to the number and nature of compliance issues.

Rachel Seelig, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project, said it is “pretty unusual” for school districts to be placed under targeted monitoring.

“Actually getting to the place of saying, 'We are going to move from selective monitoring to targeted monitoring' means that [the Agency of Education is] going to keep monitoring until corrections are actually verified,” Seelig said.

In an email on Friday, Springfield superintendent Sherri Nichols said the district is taking the memo seriously and will work with the agency to improve. She acknowledged that the district "has students not receiving essential care due to inadequate staffing and a shortage of applicants," a problem that has gone on for several years.

However, Nichols wrote, school district staff have reached out to the state to discuss some parts of the memo that they feel are inaccurate.

For instance, Springfield's special services director, Kelly Ryan, was out on medical leave and requested an extension from the state for submitting necessary paperwork but was denied. Ryan said he made multiple requests for technical assistance and professional development sessions that he may have missed.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened its own investigation into the Springfield School District. The probe will determine whether the district denied a student a free and appropriate education. It’s one of four federal investigations related to FAPE that are currently under way in Vermont's K-12 schools.

The Springfield investigation was spurred by a complaint filed in September by  Lauren, the mother of Maurice, an 11-year-old who has multiple disabilities. Maurice was kicked out of summer school in 2020 after pulling a teacher’s hair. Since then, he's received only minimal special-education instruction, a situation that Seven Days wrote about last year

The federal investigation is examining whether the district failed to follow Maurice's Individualized Education Program, which lays out how he should receive services.

Lauren — who asked that her last name not be used due to safety concerns — filed two administrative complaints against the Springfield School District with the Vermont Agency of Education last year, both of which were substantiated.

Since late January, Maurice has been receiving two hours of in-school instruction per day, Lauren said, but there are still no plans for increasing his time in school or making up any of the instruction he has missed.

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