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Special ed faulted as 'designed to fail' Report says city schools at risk of serious violence

A consultant has issued a sweeping indictment of special education in Buffalo Public Schools, saying the system is badly deficient in so many areas that it is "designed to fail."

The 25-page report warns that city schools do little to help emotionally troubled students and that students and teachers face "the possibility of serious violent incidents, especially in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy."

The consulting firm also said the 15 city schools in its sample are failing to deal with woeful academic performance, high rates of absenteeism and serious disciplinary problems among special education students.

"The system is comprised of many separate 'moving parts' that, instead of ensuring a comprehensive and seamless system, promote fragmentation and parent, student and staff frustration," the report said. "In the final analysis, the existing system is designed to fail special education students and diffuse accountability for positive outcomes among too many players."

Superintendent James A. Williams, who commissioned the report along with the Board of Education, said Monday it will spark a three-year special education reform plan based on greater responsibility for principals, clearer accountability, a better student identification process and a conviction that students with disabilities can and will do well academically.

"I totally support the recommendations," Williams said. "Right now, we have people stepping on each others' toes because they're coming from so many offices."

The report said the system concentrates on complying with rules and mandates rather than helping children, makes scant use of important data, does little to help students phase out of special education, ignores medical information and discourages suggestions from parents and teachers.

In perhaps its most troubling finding, the report concludes that less than 250 special education students receive counseling at the 15 schools studied, despite "overwhelming evidence" that many more need assistance.

"Far too many special education students with more complex and involved emotional problems than the usual behavior management issues do not receive the help they need in school," the report said. "Unless dramatic and immediate reform takes place, staff and students are vulnerable to the possibility of serious violent incidents, especially in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy."

In April, an emotionally disturbed student fatally shot 32 students and staff members at Virginia Tech, before killing himself. It was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The report recommends:

*Giving teachers, principals and parents greater say in special education decisions.

*Consistently enforcing attendance policies and intensifying efforts to prevent truancy.

*Establishing a "well designed, intensive and comprehensive remedial program" in eighth and ninth grades to prevent further declines in academic performance.

*Giving special education students greater choice of schools.

The report, prepared by Educational Support Systems, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, cost about $40,000 and is based on a three-month review of special education practices at the 15 "focus schools."

Citywide, 9,423 students, or 19.8 percent of total enrollment, are in special education, a percentage far higher than any other system in Erie or Niagara counties. Their disabilities range from speech impairments to emotional disturbances. Half of the special education students are classified as learning disabled.

During the first semester of the recently concluded school year, the 2,600 special education students in the 15 focus schools accounted for 1,900 reports of disruptive, violent or inappropriate behavior.

"Principals at every one of the focus schools acknowledge that in the absence of mental health supports, special education students continue to be disproportionately represented in discipline actions," the report said. "Classroom management strategies are designed to help students maintain daily control but are not necessarily designed to help students achieve a longer-term goal of transitioning to less restrictive settings."

Williams said the reform plan will streamline the special education system, give principals more responsibility, transfer support staff from central locations to individual schools, prevent inappropriate placements and foster the attitude that special education students can and will do better.

"We'll take this on and make sure it happens," he said. "It's going to take three to five years to get there."

The report also found that:

*At the four high schools in the study, teachers estimated that 80 percent of special education students are between two and five years below grade level in reading and mathematics. It put the percentage of special education students meeting state English and math standards at less than 10 percent in middle school grades and less than 25 percent in elementary school.

*An "alarming" 65 percent to 85 percent of high school special education students were absent 20 or more days during the first semester of the recently concluded school year.

*Committees on special education, which draw up mandated educational plans for individual students, are distant and insular, leaving teachers, principals, parents and students with little opportunity to contribute.

"Parents do not attend at least 50 percent of meetings; teachers do not believe their information is viewed as important; and clinicians readily acknowledge their recommendations can easily be subject to the chair's discretion," the report said.

*Data about individual students, which is crucial to their progress, is "scattered, inconsistent and difficult to collect."

*In "an alarming number of cases," students are found eligible for special education without supporting medical information, such as a physician's diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said teachers have been frustrated by those problems for years. He said "the key is early intervention" for students showing signs of emotional difficulty in the earliest grades and giving weight to the observations of teachers.

The schools covered by the study are Burgard, Grover Cleveland, Riverside and South Park high schools; Campus West Elementary School, Community School 53, Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Excellence, Early Childhood Center 61, Hamlin Park School 74, Harvey Austin School, Lorraine Elementary School, Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute, Southside Elementary School, Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center and West Hertel Academy.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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Special education problems in Buffalo Some key findings of a consultant"s report

*Emotionally troubled students receive little assistance, leaving pupils and teachers facing "the possibility of serious violent incidents, especially in light of the Virginia Tech tragedy."

*Decisions on individual students are made largely by an insular bureaucracy, leaving teachers, principals and parents outside the loop.

*Academic achievement is poor among special education students, and absenteeism rates are "alarming" at the four high schools studied.

*Important data about individual students is "scattered, inconsistent and difficult to collect."

Source: Educational Support Systems, a consulting firm hired by the district

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