AISD’s Special Education System Struggles to Keep Up

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School system tries to keep up with its workload and comply with legal mandates

Trasell Underwood doesn’t know how hard it will be yet.

Underwood adopted her son when he was 5 months old; she says his birth mother was using drugs during pregnancy, and she was concerned from the outset about his potential disabilities. When her son was in prekindergarten, she felt her toddler was even more hyperactive than toddlers typically are, and had him independently tested for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She brought the results to the special education staff at Pecan Springs Ele­­ment­­ary, who concurred. But diagnoses change as kids grow and develop, and sometimes that growth highlights new needs to be addressed by parents and teachers. That’s why the law requires reevaluation for special education students every three years.

Underwood is one of hundreds of parents caught up in backlogs in Austin ISD’s special education evaluation system, which determines which students are eligible for services and what supports – such as speech therapy, counseling, or extra teaching time – they need. Without evaluations, students can’t enter the system; without timely reevaluations, their evolving needs can’t be addressed.

Right now, AISD’s system is severely understaffed and overtaxed, according to more than a dozen interviews with parents, organizers, advocates, and current and former staff and administrators. This has led to backlogs that violate legal requirements and, in some cases, produce devastating waits for students and parents. Approx­i­mate­ly 500 initial evaluations and a “similar number” of reevaluations are currently overdue, and the numbers of staff who would typically be able to fill them are dwindling, leading to a heavy reliance on contracted employees. According to data obtained through open records requests, AISD has lost nearly half of its evaluation staff since October 2019.

Eventually, the spiraling delays caught the attention of Disability Rights Texas, which describes itself as “the federally designated legal protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities” (every state has one). The agency took legal action against AISD for impermissibly late evaluations; AISD acknowledged that it hadn’t met the timelines to serve hundreds of students and submitted a corrective action plan to TEA to “address systemic issues.” These efforts ranged from expanding recruitment efforts to fill staff positions, to quadrupling AISD’s use of contracted outside providers, to redesigning the evaluation assignment system.

“We’re reasonable and understand that COVID changed a lot of what can and can’t happen,” said Kym Rogers, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas who worked on the case. “A lot of our concern with Austin is that there seemed to be absolutely no attempt to do what could be done, even when in-person [visits] couldn’t occur.” Hickman told us the district conducted “some inventories and interviews [with] parents” in online formats, although it was unable to complete most evaluations as they require in-person assessment.


Read the full article on the Austin Chronicle website.