Teacher complaints expose tensions as special-ed overhaul continues

At P.S. Q811 in Queens last year, several students with severe disabilities went without their full-time aides during lunch, fire drills, and certain classes, according to complaints filed with the teachers union. Because some of those students suffered from multiple daily seizures, leaving them without aides “may be a danger to the students,” the union reported to the city.

At the Unity Center for Urban Technologies, a small Manhattan high school, 20 juniors and seniors with disabilities were supposed to be in special classes last year led by two teachers, according to the union complaints. The problem was, the school didn’t offer co-taught classes in those grades, the complaints said.

And at P.S. 44 on Staten Island, the school modified the personal learning plans of some special-needs students last year so that they would be moved into general-education classes, the complaints said. This led to general-education classes where 19 out of 32 students had disabilities, leaving the teachers “overwhelmed” and unable to meet their needs, according to the complaints.

Those are among the 151 complaints related to special education that were filed with the United Federation of Teachers last fall, which the union then reported to the city, according to a Department of Education document obtained by Chalkbeat. That represents a more than 60 percent increase from the number of complaints filed during the same September-to-December period the year before, the document shows.

The complaints only provide a glimpse into the special-education issues that arise in schools, most of which are never reported or are resolved before they make it to the department’s central office. But those compiled in the department’s document suggest that some schools are unequipped to serve all of their students with disabilities, leading to overcrowded classrooms, missing support services, and questionable changes to students’ personal learning plans.

Some of the issues were minor and readily addressed. In fact, 111 of the 151 complaints were resolved by December 2013, according to the document.

Still, they reflect the new demands that have been placed on schools by the city’s special-education overhaul, which calls for neighborhood schools to serve special-needs students whom they might have referred elsewhere in the past, and to try to place those students in classes alongside their non-disabled peers whenever possible. The new policies had already been in effect for a year when these complaints were filed in 2013 and similar problems continue to crop up today, advocates say.

“We’re still getting cases that sound just like ones we were getting two years ago as they were just starting to roll this out,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children, who backs the city’s new inclusion policies but said many schools still struggle to carry them out.

“Something gets lost in translation,” she said.

The teachers union declined to comment on this story, while the principals of P.S. Q811, Unity Center for Urban Technologies, and P.S. 44 did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment. Education department officials acknowledged they use the complaints document to track and respond to concerns brought by the union.

“We review any issues raised by educators in our schools and work to address them proactively and immediately,” said department spokesman Harry Hartfield.

One of the most common types of complaint alleged that schools packed too many students with disabilities into special-education classes. Many complaints said schools had violated the department’s rule that students with disabilities may make up no more than 40 percent of mixed-ability classes led by two teachers, which have become increasingly common as the reforms have rolled out. At Curtis High School on Staten Island, for example, all 41 mixed-ability classes exceeded that limit last October, according to one complaint.

Other common complaints said that students were not getting any or all of their mandated services, like speech therapy, small-group lessons, or paraprofessionals; or that classes that should have included special-education teachers were missing them.

Some of the problems were temporary.

For instance, four special-education classes at P.S. 503 in Brooklyn had 13 students in September 2013, according to a complaint, surpassing the legal limit of 12 students for that type of class. Principal Bernadette Fitzgerald said that many of those special-needs students were new arrivals who were promptly reassessed, then moved to larger classes with extra supports.

“We’re shifting kids constantly,” Fitzgerald said, noting that her large school has a sizeable budget and enough special-education teachers to meet students’ needs in different settings.

But other complaints have proved harder to resolve, hinting at the occasional clashes that have broken out as schools try to enact the new special-education policies with limited resources.

Some educators and advocates insist that school administrators have inappropriately altered the personal learning plans, or IEPs, of some special-needs students in order to shift them to mixed-ability classes, which come with higher funding. Those adjustments and others — such as restricting how often student receive certain services — are based more on available resources than the needs of the students, the critics say.

At a City Council hearing last October on the new policies, UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez said the overhaul had resulted in “IEPs changed — often en masse — to reflect the services the school is willing to provide.” She also emailed teachers that month to say that administrators cannot use the new policies as a reason to deny services to students, and to urge teachers to file complaints if that happened.

Several complaints that were filed say just that, the city document shows.

For example, one complaint alleged that the principal of the Urban Science Academy in the Bronx sent his staff a memo telling them that special-needs students could not be offered co-taught classes in the humanities or science. The complaint specifically notes that the special-education overhaul does not limit the types of services that can be offered to students. (The principal, Patrick Kelly, declined to comment.)

Another complaint alleged that several kindergarten students with disabilities at Manhattan’s P.S. 75 were given too few periods of co-taught classes. The complaint asks for “clarification” from the school administration about how it decides what services students should receive, adding, “IEPs shouldn’t match what is available but should match the needs of the individual students.”

Principal Robert O’Brien said in an interview that all students are given the services they require, and noted that the complaint had been resolved. He added that a team of educators and administrators creates each student’s learning plan based on his or her needs.

He and other principals said their push to move special-needs students into mixed-ability classes and to rethink whether they require intensive services is not connected to budgets or staff levels. Instead, it is based on evidence that students with disabilities sometimes do better outside of special classes, they said.

Madeline Rochelle, a special-education administrator in P.S. 75’s support network, said many educators are still grappling with this “paradigm shift.”

“The way this used to be done was throw a lot of services at children and hope they swim,” she said. “That has not been particularly effective.”