Duval Co.'s disabled education violates federal law

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Duval County Public Schools violated some federal laws governing the education of children with disabilities, according to an investigation.

The Florida Department of Education started investigating Duval's Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program in May after receiving a complaint from Disability Rights Florida. 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. After reviewing the educational plans of 93 students from 18 schools, it found 53 students were not getting the math and reading services they needed for several reasons.

Several ESE teachers told investigators they were told not to request substitute teachers when they were absent from work.

The redacted report does not identify the schools where violations occurred.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told our news partner WJCT that he has been aware of issues with ESE since he began his tenure in the district. Vitti said he also takes the issue personally as two of his sons are dyslexic and have use district's special education services.

"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."

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.

School district spokeswoman, Marsha Oliver, released this statement:

"We were aware of the Department of Education's review of ESE services in several Duval County schools. While prompted by a concern regarding one school, the audit included an expanded assessment of the implementation of ESE services in several (--) randomly selected schools. The report, which highlights a need for more consistent implementation of academic interventions and proper placement of substitute teachers in ESE classrooms, supports that we must continue our work in ESE."

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