Every state in the country has problems administering its special education program, including New York. Difficulties can arise in any area but they are predictably intense in city schools, where concentrations of poverty, illness and other stresses can overwhelm a district's reduced ability to cope with them.
It has been clear for years that Buffalo, one of the nation's poorest cities, was no exception to that rule. Still, the depth of the problems documented in a new study may have come as a shock to some observers. This program is a mess.
Special education is a federally mandated program meant to provide extra help to students with a range of disabilities. Buffalo's special education program is "designed to fail," the report said, and is so grievously mismanaged that it puts students at risk of violence.
The district's failure to appropriately help students with emotional difficulties makes staff and students "vulnerable to the possibility of serious violent incidents, especially in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy," according to the report.
Other problems include fragmentation of effort, high absenteeism and lack of accountability. The system makes no serious effort to restrict admission to students who truly qualify or, conversely, to transition students back into general education when appropriate. Such factors inevitably discourage students, parents and teachers.
Fortunately, school district administrators seem to understand the problems and say they are committed to fixing them. Indeed, it was Superintendent James A. Williams and the board of education who commissioned the just-released report. "I totally support the recommendations," Williams said, estimating that it will take three to five years to fix the problems.
We hope it will take only that long, given the report's conclusion that "dramatic and immediate reform" is needed to reduce the possibility of violence. Two good places to start are in excluding students who do not qualify and in working to put students back into general education. That way, the district can focus more intently on those students the program was meant to help, while providing other kinds of academic intervention to students who are having problems but don't belong in special education.
Because special education law empowers parents with many rights, districts often follow the path of least resistence and admit children even when they don't really qualify. That means that part of Williams' task has to be building greater trust and understanding between the district and parents. Most broadly, he needs parents to believe that their children are getting the help they need, whether they are in special education or not.
This is an urgent task and while the need is especially prevalent in Buffalo, other districts would do well to follow the city's lead. They obviously include schools in other cities, such as Lackawanna and Niagara Falls, but wealthier districts also are liable to be administering the program poorly. They need to shape up, too.