Detroit district staff raise concerns about shortages and delays in special education evaluations

Some staff in the Detroit Public Schools Community District are raising concerns that heavy caseloads and staff shortages are leading to delays in providing services for children. (Anthony Lanzilote)

Heavy caseloads and staff shortages are leaving some Detroit students still waiting to be evaluated for special education services, multiple school employees and advocates said during a school board meeting Tuesday.

Their concerns, particularly comments about students whose lack of services had been brought to the board before but remain unresolved, prompted board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo to demand the district fix the problem and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to say he would more actively hold staff accountable for addressing the complaints.

The issues underscore the challenges facing the Detroit Public Schools Community District and its efforts to serve some of the most vulnerable children. Nearly 14% of the population in the district are students with disabilities, and like many school districts across the nation, the Detroit district struggles to hire qualified special education staff. Most of its academic vacancies are in the special education department (called the exceptional student education department in the Detroit district).

Board members heard from a speech language pathologist who said that as of Nov. 30, 73 students needed her support, but she described herself as powerless because “there are not enough of us.”

She urged the district to “do anything you can to recruit and retain excellent speech pathologists,” and noted that children with speech challenges “have a right to communicate to their God-given potential.”

The board heard from other ancillary staff (including speech pathologists, social workers, and occupational therapists) who said delays in providing an Individualized Education Program, which federal law requires for students with disabilities, is a problem in the district.

Parent and advocate Melissa Redman, a frequent speaker at board meetings and critic of the district, said the parent of a child whose delays she had previously brought to the board is still waiting for an IEP.

“It’s been a month,” Redman said.”She still hasn’t heard anything.”

The delays are putting pressure on existing staff, said Janice Smith, a district social worker. That’s difficult given their job duties have expanded since COVID, as there’s been concern about the mental health challenges of students. She said staff feel overworked and undervalued.

“School social workers give out hearty hugs and high fives while also providing grief counseling to students, families, and staff,” Smith said.

Vitti, after hearing from the public, responded to the comments, saying “I’m actually discouraged by the number of examples that were named tonight from ESE ancillary staff of the lack of follow up.”

He said he would begin to regularly attend monthly meetings between ancillary staff and central office staff. He said he would also make sure staff respond to concerns raised by staff in writing to him

One thing that was unclear Tuesday is just how widespread the district’s issue with IEP delays are. Federal law requires that schools convene an IEP team within 30 days of a parent request to determine eligibility for their child.

“Without a doubt, we will not be in compliance with IEPs if we’re not fully staffed,” Vitti said.

That will be a tough problem to solve. He said the district has vacancies of 18 social workers, 34 speech language pathologists, and 10 occupational therapists.

Gay-Dagnogo said she’s received ongoing complaints for months about the IEP process.

“This is a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen,” she said.

Vitti said the district will need to dramatically increase salaries.

“We’re competing with not only surrounding school districts that aren’t dealing with the larger concentration of students (with disabilities), but we’re also competing with private companies,” Vitti said.

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach Lori at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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