Parent complaints spur Cobb to review special ed services

Cobb County school officials have launched an extensive review of the district’s special education services after complaints by parents, who argue the district is unfairly segregating their special-needs children and hurting their academic performance.

Some special-needs children have long bus rides outside their communities, and Cobb school officials often fail to work with parents when deciding what classes and resources are best for those children, parents and advocates say.

Education officials in Cobb and elsewhere say they include special-needs children as much as possible in the general school population, though children with disabilities can require specialized instruction.

Patty Abel of Acworth, whose 11-year-old son is blind and has a nearly hour-long bus ride each way to school and back home, said, “We’re trying to fight to keep him in the mainstream, at his home school … in his community.” The district told him he couldn’t attend the middle school in his community. Abel is fighting the district’s order in court.

She was among more than a dozen parents who voiced their criticism at a recent Cobb school board meeting. Board member David Morgan called for the review after parents said the system was failing special-needs children. Cobb school officials expect to present their findings to the board by March.

“It was incumbent upon us to have a thorough evaluation from top to bottom of our special student services to find … where there might be gaps or deficits,” Morgan said. “We have to come to grips with where we are, correcting it and making sure all children have access to quality opportunities.”

Federal law says students with disabilities are entitled to the “least restrictive” school setting from which they can benefit. “Least restrictive” setting typically refers to the most integrated one, placing special-needs students in traditional classrooms.

Cobb’s review comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues its investigation into Georgia’s educational funding formula. That investigation was launched after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint in 2011 alleging the formula promotes discrimination by encouraging districts to segregate students with disabilities to collect more money. Georgia districts receive more money when students with disabilities are taught in classrooms set aside just for them, rather than in classrooms with all students, the center contends.

In Georgia, close to 185,000 children with disabilities, ages 3 to 21, attend public schools, according to the Georgia Department of Education. Cobb, the state’s second-largest school system with close to 109,000 students, has 14,000 special-needs students.

Some measures indicate Cobb’s service to special-needs students is better than the state average. For example, about 67 percent of Georgia’s special-needs students are in traditional classrooms more than 80 percent of the day, according to the Georgia DOE. In Cobb, that number hovers around 70 percent. Georgia’s graduation rate for disabled students is around 35 percent, while in Cobb the number is closer to 50 percent – among the highest in Metro Atlanta.

Educators say the specialized services some students need can be delivered in the traditional classroom, in a separate class or in a separate school.

Abel says her son, Christopher, is in the system’s gifted program, and up until middle school attended traditional classes at the school in his community. But when he began sixth grade in August, school officials said he would have to attend a middle school outside his community with specialized programs for disabled children; he would also be in a less inclusive environment, Abel said.

Abel challenged the district and home schooled Christopher for more than two weeks before a judge allowed him to attend the middle school near his home until a decision about his permanent placement is made.

“He (Christopher) has anxiety, depression, fears. We’ve been taking him to a counselor because of this” conflict with the school district, said Abel, adding that her family has also spent thousands of dollars hiring attorneys and fighting the matter in court. Christopher has thrived in an inclusive educational environment … with his twin sister since kindergarten. Now that he is in middle school, Cobb County has tried to remove him from that track … enforce more restrictive services on him.”

Mary Elizabeth Davis, chief academic officer for Cobb County schools, said of the district’s review, “We’re taking public perception and parent perception very seriously and aiming to not just listen but actually act upon what we’re learning by listening.”

In Fulton County schools, parents of special-needs students have raised similar concerns, prompting education leaders to announce plans last spring to keep as many special-needs students as possible in their community schools and not bus them long distances to schools that offer specialized programs.

Eric Jacobson, executive director for the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, an independent state agency that advocates for families, said parents across Georgia report special-needs children being needlessly segregated. They also say some schools fail to include them in deciding what classes and resources are best for their children.

“We’ve consistently gotten calls over the years from parents in Cobb County (reporting) in which Cobb has created these kind of very exclusionary places for kids with disabilities … Parents are really struggling to try to get their kids in regular classrooms.

“By segregating kids because of disability, we are hampering their progress,” he added. “It puts the kids on a path of failure. It puts the kids on a path of not getting what they need in order to graduate and become productive citizens.”

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