Federal officials have fanned out across the state after allegations that Texas capped special education enrollment at 8.5 percent to save money.
Parents and educators spoke this week at a listening session with federal and state education officials in Richardson. We hear from two former Dallas school employees with their stories.
It’s one thing to hear distraught parents say through tears that their children were denied special education services. It’s another thing to hear former school district employees, like psychologist Abel Tomatis, corroborate these stories.
“I butted heads with the administrator and flat out said ‘What’s going on with your kids is unfair. We’re denying them their rights,” Tomatis said.
As a Dallas school psychologist for 10 years, Tomatis encountered lots of students with learning disabilities. If their parents spoke Spanish – frequently the case — language could be a barrier to getting special education services for their kids. Tomatis speaks Spanish and tried to help.
“The easiest way to keep me out of the loop was to not tell me that meetings were held,” he said. “Many times I would be the only person that spoke Spanish and could translate to parents.”
Tomatis recounted other ways officials tried denying special education services. For instance, if kids with learning disabilities could pass standardized tests. Parents would get a progress report suggesting their child did not need special services.
“If kids look great on paper then no one asks too many questions,” Tomatis explains. “That’s something I see time and again with parents. They would get a progress report from their child. The child gets A's and B’s, they’re passing, OK everything seems fine. The parent sits down, does homework with their kids and suddenly realizes the child can’t read, can’t write, can’t add. What’s going on here? They go to school, ask for help. ‘Well let’s pull up the grades. Your child was passing, nothing to see here.”
Tomatis wasn’t alone in suspecting something was up. Daphne LaMontagne worked as a coordinator for special education kids in Dallas schools. A mom herself with a child needing special education help, she noticed some students were denied evaluations that might’ve provided additional services.
“I spent the last three years being what I would label harassed by special education staff and special education directors. And I don’t use that word lightly,” LaMontagne said.
After hearing story after story from frustrated parents who couldn’t get the services they needed, LaMontagne quit.
“When a parent says ‘I want special education testing,’ they did not want that to trigger in the system. They wanted to slow that process down,” LaMontagne said. “And I watched it over and over and over…getting to the point that I couldn’t stay and be a part of that system knowing that at some point they were going to get caught and I didn’t want to be sitting at the table as someone who had knowledge of this who stayed and perpetuated the issue.”
KERA reached out to Dallas school officials and Deputy Superintendent Ivan Duran said he doesn’t know about the allegations from Tomatis and LaMontagne. Still, he said the district is taking action.
“We’ve started a review of our special education program to look into a number of factors, from, like what is the division of special education and then what are processes we have in place to test students and see if they qualify for special education?” Duran said. “So we recently have hired an outside person to come in to work with us to do that review.”
Duran says everyone from central office and special education staff to school principals, teachers, parents and students will be included in this review. He says the district wants to know what services families are getting — or not — in order to, as he put it, make quick corrections.
The review’s expected to be finished in February.