The city is failing to provide thousands of services to students with disabilities, and the shortfall is worst in some of the city’s poorest and least accessible neighborhoods, new data shows.
The gaps emerge from the labyrinthine system by which students get certain kinds of help for special needs, such as speech therapy and intensive counseling. When schools aren’t able to serve students on their own, they hire traveling specialists. When they can’t find a provider, it falls to parents to navigate the process on their own.
Spurred by the city’s pay structure, many providers take a dim view of trekking into homes and schools in the city’s far-flung corners. The result: Students from the South Bronx to Central Brooklyn to Coney Island face longer odds than other city students in actually getting the help they need.
The data sheds new light on the city’s ongoing efforts — and struggles — to meet the growing demand for “related services,” a type of special-education support that also includes occupational therapy, physical therapy, and help for sight or hearing problems.
The lapses are glaring in Jamaica, Queens, where 19 percent of those required services were unprovided in June of last year. In the South Bronx, where child poverty rates hover around 50 percent, 10 percent of required services went unprovided to students from four ZIP codes with an average median household income of $22,000. Just 1.5 percent of services went unprovided in the city’s five wealthiest enclaves, which have an average median income of $162,000.
“You don’t even know who to be angry with,” said Karen Sprowal, a Washington Heights parent who says her son struggled in elementary school because he did not receive the counseling and therapy services that had been prescribed for his attention deficit disorder. “It begins with the fact that the resources are not there.”
The data provided to Chalkbeat in response to Freedom of Information requests showed that the city had not provided 15,403 services in June of last year — 6 percent of all related services for traditional public school students in 2013-14. The total number of students who aren’t being served is unclear because a student may have more than one unmet need, and a Department of Education spokesperson would not provide that figure. (The city also did not specify how many of the provided services were incomplete.)
The total number of unprovided services is actually down 15 percent since 2010, when 18,151 services went unprovided, according to a 2012 audit. The city has managed to lower the number even as demand for the services has increased by 18 percent.
But in the Bronx and far-flung parts of Queens and Brooklyn, more students are going without those services than before. The ZIP code with the most unprovided services, 10459, which includes parts of the Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point and Longwood, saw the number increase from 591 to 758 last year. In Coney Island, the number nearly quadrupled in one year, from 82 to 303.
“Whenever you have an entire ZIP code area that appears to be underserved, that is an issue of concern,” said Roger Maldonado, the lead lawyer on a decades-old class action lawsuit whose plaintiffs assert the city is not doing enough to provide students with their mandated services.
Services lag in underserved areas for a host of reasons, according to special education advocates, teachers, parents, and providers.
The city spends more than $400 million annually to provide related services, with much of that money going to large service agencies that get first dibs when a student needs a service that they can provide and a school cannot. If none of the agencies take the job, the city offers vouchers to parents, who then have to arrange appointments with independent providers.
One issue that some advocates raised is that there are shortages in areas where there is high demand for services. And since therapists and providers who contract with the city aren’t required to take specific jobs, and don’t get paid for time spent commuting, they have few incentives to trudge far distances to homes or schools in distant neighborhoods.
Barbara Mates, a speech pathologist based in Manhattan, said there are no easy fixes. When finding a provider falls to parents, they must find someone with the time and interest in taking on the work and whose services fit their child’s specific need, she said — a process that can be burdensome for parents. In the Bronx, where there are many Spanish-speaking students, Mates said there is also a shortage of bilingual providers.
“It’s just a maze of problems,” Mates said.
Jean Mizutani, program manager at Resources for Children with Special Needs, agreed that it’s an imperfect system, but said parents can often do more to push for their child’s needs.
“It could be that parents are less likely to advocate and take additional steps to get action,” Mizutani said.
Education department spokesman Harry Hartfield said the city is already taking steps to address the issues. For years, the city has incentivized service providers to work in underserved areas through a loan forgiveness program for master’s degrees, a program started in response to the class action lawsuit. He credited the program with keeping the number of unprovided services from increasing even more.
“This has resulted in substantial improvements in service delivery to students in parts of the Bronx and other areas of the city where it has historically been difficult to hire related service providers,” Hartfield said.
Services aren’t just getting held up in faraway parts of the city. In Harlem and parts of upper Manhattan, where the average household income is $34,000, for instance, related services are going unprovided at a higher rate than the city average.
There are outliers. A bit further north in upper Manhattan, the non-compliance rate plummets to between 1 and 4 percent, even though household income is still well below the city average. In the West Village, less than two miles from the Department of Education headquarters, the average household makes more than twice the citywide average and yet 20 percent of related services went unprovided.
Still, the process of turning a referral into reality can be frustrating to parents everywhere, who say they must advocate for their child to get the services in school or arrange for outside therapies themselves. In many cases, it takes weeks or months to match a student with a provider.
“Already, we’re receiving calls because students had no services in place for the first month,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children New York, which operates a helpline for parents.
Sprowal, the Washington Heights parent who describes herself as a “fierce advocate,” saw the process unravel first-hand. When her son was in third grade, he still had trouble holding a pencil, and his words were so hard to decipher that a school psychologist recommended he visit an occupational therapist. But her son went the next two years without ever meeting with one, even though the need was clearly specified.
“I went along with it because there were so many other things that were more concerning,” said Sprowal, of Washington Heights. “So [he] never got the services.”
Looking back on the occupational-therapy oversight, Sprowal said she understood how easy it would be for other parents to lose track of the progress of support services for their own children.
“This could be happening everywhere and the average parent is not even going to notice,” Sprowal said.