March 9, 2018 10:26:48 AM
A Mississippi Department of Education investigation into Columbus Municipal School District's special education programs decisively found the district is failing to adequately educate and accommodate its SPED students.
Columbus resident Heather Ford filed a complaint on behalf of every SPED student at CMSD in October, alleging the students were not receiving SPED services they're entitled to by federal law.
Investigators looked at a sampling of 62 SPED students and found instances of noncompliance with federal mandates across the board, including in areas which Ford had not alleged in her initial report. They found students hadn't received services, hadn't received evaluations within the federally mandated timeline of 60 days and hadn't been kept in the least restrictive educational environments.
The district has 30 days to submit a corrective action plan to MDE, which must include written SPED procedures and training on those procedures for staff.
CMSD's special education programs came under fire last fall when the board held a special-call meeting for parents of SPED students, who told the board then-director of SPED Donna Jones was not providing the students with services.
Jones, at the time, claimed the district was in compliance with federal regulations and blamed the problem on lack of staff and parents not understanding what services their children were or were not entitled to.
Jones resigned from her position in January. The Dispatch has confirmed there is a Donna Jones employed as SPED director at Midtown Public Charter School in Jackson.
Local attorney and SPED parent Jim Wilson, who wrote the complaint Ford filed and signed it along with more than 20 other parents, presented the investigation's findings to the CMSD board of trustees at its meeting Thursday at Brandon Central Services. It was the third time Wilson has appeared before the board since September to talk about problems with the SPED department.
Wilson drew the board's attention to investigators' findings that 59 of the 62 students (95 percent) whose files were reviewed did not have appropriate IEPs (individual education plans), which set individual educational goals for students and determine what services they need to achieve those goals.
"Finding that 59 of the 62 from the random sampling is suggestive statistically that most of the 426 students (with special needs in CMSD) would have an IEP that was not developed properly," Wilson said. "That is very alarming to me as the parent of a special needs child because the IEP is our road map. We have to follow that. It has to have sustainable meaningful goals."
But Wilson said he was optimistic, especially if IEP committees -- which consist of parents, teachers, administrators and other individuals who provide services for the child -- start working together better when forming education plans.
"If we can get our IEP (committee members) trained and educated on how to write appropriate IEPs so those attainable goals can be met, we have a chance to succeed," he said. "But as things are now, the findings unfortunately reveal that we have a pretty broken up system right now."
His optimism also stemmed from his work with new SPED director Cheryl Smith, who replaced Jones. Wilson said he'd had IEP meetings with Smith in which she was professional, courteous and offered ideas and solutions for issues Wilson and other IEP committee members had brought to her attention.
Interim Superintendent Craig Shannon said he and Smith had also received the investigators' findings earlier this week and had already met to discuss solutions to the issues.
"Being in compliance is not is just not our goal," he said. "Average organizations expect compliance every day. Great organizations expect excellence every day. We're going to do things well. We're going to be sure your kids have above and beyond what they need to be productive citizens. So we will become compliant, but our goal is to make sure we're excellent in everything we do, so this will be the district of choice for those students and parents that have children with special needs, so they can receive the services they deserve."
Wilson said he was glad to hear Shannon's attitude.
Shannon elaborated on the issue after the meeting. He said the district would address each complaint individually and work with MDE, as well as parents and other stakeholders, to come up with corrective action plans.
He said Smith had already begun meeting with parents to address their questions and concerns. Corrective action plans have to be in place for individual students by May 11, at which time MDE will review the program again.
"It would be my hope that we can have some sort of SPED update for the next few board meetings just to keep the public and our board up to date on what progress we're making towards the citations," Shannon said.
Newly appointed board member Yvonne Cox, who was assistant director of SPED programs for more than five years in the early 2000s, said she is optimistic Shannon and Smith are "on target" to correct the problems.
"Usually when MDE has complaints, you work through the corrective action plan, and that is happening," Cox said. "They monitor that, they come in and check again and then you're fine.
"I'm very positive things are coming around," she added.
CMSD's board also held officer elections on Thursday. Board president Jason Spears was unanimously re-elected to that post. Unanimous votes also made Frederick Sparks vice president and Josie Shumake secretary.
Shannon also reviewed safety procedures at the district, in light of a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and a social media threat last month against New Hope High School. A student at Columbus Middle School also was arrested in February for having a gun at school.
In addition to regular training and drills for staff and students, Shannon said, the district has also begun working with Columbus Police Department officers who are on campus during student arrival and dismissal and are also doing periodic checks of Columbus High School.
Shannon also said he would be meeting with representatives from each campus to have further meetings of school safety procedures. After the meeting he addressed House Bill 1083, which was just passed through the Mississippi House of Representatives and is now in the Mississippi Senate. If passed, the bill would allow school districts, private schools and universities to designate particular staff members to carry concealed weapons during the school day.
"We're trying to see how that bill progresses through our Legislature and see what direction we're given by the state and MDE on it," Shannon said. "But I do want to focus on having a representative from each building and see how we can improve the safety procedures of our district as we go into next year."
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