The results of a state investigation into Duval County Public Schools' Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program show the district in violation of some federal special education laws.
The investigation by the Florida Department of Education began in May following a complaint from Disability Rights Florida that the district violated state and federal provisions regarding special instruction for students in math and reading tailored to their individualized education plan, or IEP. The complaint also alleges the district violated federal and state co-teaching requirements.
The complaint stems from reports that a principal in the district used ESE personnel for non-ESE-related issues such as bus duty and hall patrol.
In late May, investigators with the department visited 18 schools in the district to conduct teacher interviews, review student records and other school documentation.
According to the report issued this week by the state department, investigators found evidence that between Aug. 19, 2013 and April 18, 2014, the district violated laws pertaining to IEP-specific instruction for students in reading and math. The investigation, however, found no evidence that the district violated its co-teaching mandate. The redacted report does not identify the schools where violations occurred.
Among the other findings from the report, investigators concluded:
- The majority of ESE teachers were providing students with appropriate ESE services and many students were receiving services beyond those specified in their IEP.
- Some students did not receive support services in math and reading because teachers were used to administer and facilitate state and district assessments.
- The interpretation within the district regarding what amount of time is intended for period of ESE instruction varies widely from school to school.
The district has until Sept. 1 to provide ESE training to all its principals, special education teachers and school-based local education agency representatives, and until Aug. 1 to provide training materials to the state department.
The district also has until Oct. 1 to provide a comprehensive analysis of each elementary student who did not receive proper specialized instruction during the 2013-14 school year.
The district has been given until Dec. 15 to provide the department with an additional sample of elementary students with disabilities to analyze during the 2014-15 year.
In addition to training, the department also recommends that the district revise its policies regarding substitute coverage for ESE teachers and ESE teacher caseloads.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he has been aware of issues with ESE since he began his tenure in the district.
“I’ve said since starting as superintendent over a year ago that one of the big areas that needed to be improved is ESE, in general,” he said.
He said the findings reflect a need to implement ESE student specialized learning plans with greater fidelity.
“Obviously, we take the findings seriously,” he said. "Most are those that are very specific to individual school sites and the operation and ownership of ESE programs, IEPs at the school level with school principals, so we are going to follow up individually with certain school principals and use discipline where appropriate, where IEPs were not properly implemented or where personnel were not used appropriately.”
Vitti said he also takes the issue personally. Two of his sons are dyslexic and have IEPs of their own.
He said by September, he plans to create a hotline where students, employees and parents can call in suspected violations of special instruction requirements.
“If their issues are not being addressed at the school site by the principal...we have to create a mechanism and a way for individuals to address their concerns,” he said.
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.