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Proctor schools violate special education law

The Proctor school district was ordered by the state to notify parents that 43 middle and high school students were deprived of speech and language services for six weeks in 2015. (Barrett Chase / bchase@duluthnews.com)

The Proctor school district violated federal special education law when 43 middle and high school students were deprived of speech and language services for six weeks in 2015.

A family filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education when it learned in November of that year that its child didn't receive services during the first six weeks of school. The student was to receive 16 20-minute sessions during that time. During the education department's investigation, it learned that none of the students in the middle and high school scheduled to receive speech and language services as dictated by their individualized education plans (IEPs) had received them. The lack of services violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Between the 43 students, 3,510 minutes of work required by their plans went unserved, according to the complaint decision. Decisions are posted on the education department's website.

The school district was ordered by the state to notify parents of the lapse, and make up the missed time by the end of the school year. It also was directed to train the speech/language pathologist in the law's requirements. It has done that, according to the state education department.

The district told the state that the services weren't offered as directed because of the scheduling practices of the pathologist. Superintendent John Engelking explained further last week that there was a larger than normal number of students needing services that fall, and the pathologist spent that time scheduling, working with teachers and getting to know students instead of providing direct services.

Documents show the family that complained said it was told by the pathologist that her practice was to schedule services in the fifth or sixth week of school.

Steps were taken to ensure the situation didn't repeat itself, said Tim Rohweder, principal of both the middle and high schools.

He said there is more oversight of the scheduling process and service time requirements, and regular checks were made to ensure requirements were being met throughout the special education department and for all IEPs. That has been done not only by administration, he said, but also by the Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative, of which the district is a member.

Rohweder said he was made aware of the situation the same time the family that filed the complaint did, and had begun to address it when the complaint was filed. He is unaware of the practice occurring in prior years.

Only one of the 43 families affected contacted the education department, said spokeswoman Emily Bisek. Last school year, the state received 139 special education complaints, with 105 resulting in decisions. Only eight of those were characterized as "systemic" complaints, relating to multiple children on a bigger scale, such as Proctor's.

Smaller districts such as Proctor often struggle with staffing issues, having only one person to serve a number of students, said Daron Korte, the assistant education commissioner for the state, who oversees part of the special education division.

But services still need to be provided, he said.

Six weeks is a long time for students needing speech or language help to not have access to it, said Deborah Dixon, director of school services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Depending on the severity of each child's communication disorder, the lost time could have affected student progress, she said.

Speech/language pathologists teach fluency and sentence structure, how to say certain sounds and how to learn new vocabulary — "all the underpinnings of literacy inherent in language issues," Dixon said.

But if "high-quality" services were offered to the students going forward, issues were likely addressed, she said.

Arc Northland executive director Roberta Cich said she was surprised that only one of 43 affected families filed a complaint.

"There is a need for parents to understand what rights they have," she said, related to the special education law.

She pointed to Arc Northland, a disability rights advocacy organization, as well as the Pacer Center and Minnesota Disability Law Center as resources for families.

"Sometimes we sit down and talk with parents about what a reasonable accommodation is, (or) what is a reasonable modification," she said, for their child's specific disability. "You don't know what you don't know."

Cich said Arc Northland workers also will attend IEP meetings with families.

Along with investigating complaints, the state education department offers mediation services and can also help families work through issues by arranging IEP meetings with school staff.

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