Dryden, N.Y. — A state investigation has found that the Dryden Central School District failed to properly evaluate its students for learning disabilities during the 2013-14 school year.

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The investigation came about after a disability advocate filed a state complaint on behalf of a parent in the district. The parent (whose identity the Voice has chosen not to release for privacy reasons) alleged that due to the school’s improper evaluation procedures, his or her child was not receiving necessary services such as 1-on-1 classroom support and counseling.

According to the results of the investigation, Dryden CSD did not carry out complete evaluations of the child in question, nor did it properly evaluate 26 other students referred to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) between July of 2013 and July of 2014.

Tami Joia, the special needs advocate who filed the complaint, said that she suspects that the district is skimping on expensive special needs services.

“They’re saying ‘lets not and say we did,’” Joia said.

By failing to provide adequate evaluations, Joia said the district may actually be costing the public more money in the long term. Referencing the official position of the US Government, Joia said that if children with special needs do not receive necessary services during their school years, they are unlikely to become contributing members of society when they graduate.

“These kids are going to end up in group homes,” she said. “And they’re going to be a burden on society for the rest of their natural lives because the school district did not do their job.”

Joia said that while there are many parents in the district with similar complaints to her client’s, most don’t have the determination and resources to take the district to task on its failures.

In an interview with the Voice, Dryden’s superintendent Sandy Sherwood downplayed the results of the investigation but said the district would be changing its evaluation procedures to comply with state guidelines.

What the state found

According to the state, evaluations which determine each student’s eligibility for special education services, are supposed to include at least:

a) a physical examination
b) an individual psychological evaluation
c) a social history
d) an observation of a student in the student’s learning environment.

The state also requires that parents be notified of (and consent to) each component of the evaluation.

The state’s investigation found that of the 27 parent notifications which were sent out by the Dryden’s Committee on Special Education in the 2013-14 school year, 5 did not list psychological evaluations, 9 did not list a social history and all 27 failed to list an observation of the student in his/her learning environment.

The investigation goes on to list a series of corrective measures for the district.

One of these measures requires the school to implement a policy for notifying parents of their right to request services “when their child requires an intervention beyond that provided to all students in the general education classroom.” Another measure requires the school to implement an evaluation program which includes at least the four essential components listed above.

The state department says it will ensure the compliance with these measures during the coming months.

An excerpt from the state’s investigation, a copy of which has been obtained by The Voice.

Tami Joia brings the case to the state

The state investigation was carried out after Tami Joia, a special education advocate, filed a pair of complaints with the New York State Department of Education.

Joia, who pursues special education rights cases in New York, Massachusetts, and 5 other states, said she was contacted by a parent in the district.

“Because my client doesn’t look like someone with a disability, the school put [redacted] in a regular ed class,” Joia said. “We’re getting evaluations done. And what they will prove is that they denied my client access to FAPE [‘Free Appropriate Public Education’].”

FAPE, Joia said, is a concept which the US Congress introduced in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act over 30 years ago. Joia said that forcing school districts to provide FAPE was meant mitigate the long-term costs of the disabled on society.

“Congress said it is better and more cost effective to make the public school system [provide FAPE] until these kids are 21-22, rather than having them become a financial burden on our society.”

Advocate Tami Joia

The National Center for Learning Disabilities warns, however, that FAPE is one of the “most misunderstood concepts in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” and often causes “the greatest conflict between parents and schools.”

“It is vital,” the Center advises, “for parents to understand that IDEA is not an entitlement program that provides disabled children with a better education than is provided to non-disabled students.”

Both Joia and the parent feel the Dryden district has, through improper evaluation procedures, denied children access to FAPE. Although the state investigation did not examine this question directly, it did look into the question of whether the district is adhering to state-mandated methods of evaluation, which are intended to be in-line with federal regulations and IDEA.

In an email to the Voice in which she explained her frustrations with the Dryden School District, the parent said, “the district performed mediocre assessments that did not address all of [redacted]’s areas of disability, and used those evaluations to remove the services of Speech and Counseling.”

The parent went on to say the district relied on “heavily opinionated material” in making its evaluation instead of “technically sound instruments.”

Although the investigation did not find that the methods which the district used were technically unsound, it did find that in this case, as well as in other cases, the district failed to perform evaluations in “all areas of suspected disability.”

“The initial evaluation of the Student,” the State’s findings say, “did not include a physical examination, an updated psychological evaluation or a written report from the psychologist that included a statement of why an updated evaluation was not necessary, a social history, or an observation of the Student in the current setting.”

By failing to perform complete evaluations, Joia said that the district prevented this child, as well as others, from receiving necessary special needs services.

“It’s all about proving that the children with special needs are actually getting an education,” Joia said. “And none of them are going to be able to prove that.”

Superintendent’s response

Sandy Sherwood, Superintendent of Dryden CSD, said that the school was already in the process of revamping its evaluation procedures at the time the complaint was filed.

“As is typical with an SED [State Education Department] complaint,” Sherwood said, “there are some procedural adjustments that need to be made.”

“It’s kind of perfect,” Sherwood said. “Now we have someone from the state working with us to determine what needs to be changed.”

Superintendent Sherwood said that although some students were improperly evaluated, the district was not “systematically remiss.” (The state, however, found that all 27 of the parent notices failed to list at least one of the required evaluations.)

“Sometimes there would be something we didn’t evaluate when we should have,” Sherwood said. “The state department has said there needs to be a more systematic approach to deciding which evaluations need to be done.”

Sherwood said the school district is taking the opportunity to train staff on the appropriate steps for evaluating students and keeping parents in the loop. She said they plan on adhering with all state guidelines by the January and March deadlines set by the state department.

Joia, on the other hand, is unsatisfied with the results of the state investigation. Joia takes particular issue with its finding that the district used “technically sound instruments” for evaluation.

Joia said she plans to take this case to the federal level, and is in the process of filing a complaint with Office of Special Education Programs, the federal agency which oversees state implementation of IDEA.

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