Grim statistics show city still failing to evaluate, serve many students with disabilities

Newly released data show that New York City is still struggling to monitor and provide services to many of its students with disabilities — a swelling group that is larger than Hawaii’s entire student population.

Nearly 30 percent of students with disabilities had to wait longer than the legal limit to receive their first plans outlining the services they need, while 40 percent of students were given none or only some of the services called for by those plans, according to the data from the 2014-15 school year.

The city education department released the data in a report Monday under the terms of a 2015 City Council bill, which followed years of complaints by advocates and lawmakers that the city was withholding vital information about the nearly 188,000 city students in kindergarten through high school who have disabilities.

But the report comes with a major caveat: Because of serious flaws with the city’s $130 million special-education tracking system, officials warned that some of the information in the report may not be reliable. In fact, the system’s limitations meant that education department employees had to spend several months manually compiling information from different databases in order to comply with the reporting law.

“It’s mind-boggling that the system, at this stage after so many years, is still not efficient,” said Mark Alter, an educational psychology professor at New York University and an expert on special education.

Because much of the data has not previously been released to the public, the report sheds new light on how well the school system is meeting students’ needs.

According to the report, 60 percent of students last year received the full range of services called for in their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. But 35 percent, or more than 60,000 students, only received some of their mandated services. Another 5 percent, or almost 8,600 students, did not get any of the services they were entitled to.

Special-education laws give schools 60 days after receiving parental consent to hold an IEP meeting, where a student’s annual goals and required supports are determined. The report says that less than 70 percent of those required first-time meetings occurred within that time window, while about 77 percent of follow-up IEP meetings happened on time.

But that means tens of thousands are students with disabilities are waiting longer than the law permits to get IEPs, which they need to receive specialized services. That delay is a longstanding challenge for the city: Since a 1979 class-action lawsuit, a federal court has repeatedly ordered the city to provide special-education services in a timely manner. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has promised to reduce those delays.

“This has been going on 40 years,” said Alter, the NYU professor. “You have so many youngsters who are waiting. And what’s happening to them while they wait?”

The report also shows that in New York, in line with national trends, certain students are more frequently identified as having disabilities than others. Black and Hispanic students, boys, and students who are still learning English are targeted for special-education services at higher rates than their peers. Other than Staten Island, the school districts with the largest shares of students who are targeted for special-education services tend to be in areas where many low-income students of color attend school, such as East Harlem and the South Bronx.

Experts say that many of these students are misidentified as having disabilities when in fact they just need extra help to catch up academically or to follow classroom rules.

“This is a failure of general education; it’s a failure of classroom management,” said Ellen McHugh, a member of the the Citywide Council on Special Education, adding that the districts with the highest identification rates should get extra funding to help properly identify and serve students with disabilities.

Beginning in 2010, the city began ordering schools to include more students with disabilities in general-education classrooms. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of students with disabilities now spend 80 percent or more of each day in those classrooms.

Since it was rolled out in 2011, technical flaws have plagued the city’s expensive Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. Last month, Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that problems with the database have left some students without services and caused the city to lose federal funding.

The report acknowledges “major deficiencies” with the system, and notes that information related to students with disabilities is still stored in separate databases that are not linked. An education department spokesman said a multi-agency task force is currently looking for ways to improve SESIS.

The spokesman also listed several ways the department is working to improve services for students with disabilities. The actions include hiring more school psychologists and social workers to help create IEPs, adding more service providers, and launching more specialized programs for students with autism.

“Today’s report serves to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring all students have access to a rigorous and inclusive education with appropriate services and supports,” Deputy Chancellor for the Division of Specialized Instruction Corinne Rello-Anselmi said in a statement.