NORTH TEXAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) - Since 2004 special education enrollment in Texas schools has dropped from 11.2 percent to 8.5 percent of the student population, according to state reports.
All five of largest school districts in North Texas have followed this downward trend.
The 8.5 percent puts Texas below the national average of more than 13 percent of students receiving special education services.
Federal law requires schools to identify and provide special education services to those who need it.
Disability advocates say in thousands of cases Texas school are not even evaluating students who show potential signs of needing the extra services.
Here are two stories of North Texas families who have struggled to get their child's school to evaluate them for special education services.
Jalen's Story: Seven-year-old never evaluated for special education despite written request
Shanika Smith of Dallas said all she wants for her seven-year-old son, Jalen, is what most parents want – for him to be happy and productive.
It is something his year and a half at KIPP Destiny Elementary School in Dallas, she said, was anything but.
"As soon as school started, it was trouble every day," the Dallas mother said.
Schools records show his teacher consider Jalen "intelligent" but with major behavior issues.
Jalen's school behavior log provided by his family showed incidents of the seven-year-old "jumping on tables" and "shouting out" in class. Jalen once "choked another student" and told a teacher "he likes to hurt himself," according to school records.
"It was horrifying," said Smith. "I'm thinking something is wrong with my kid. At this point I was like looking into mental health facilities and stuff like that."
Smith said she knew her son needed help and so she asked the school to have him evaluated for special education. She even put the request in writing.
Yet, KIPP Destiny never did an evaluation to see if Jalen qualifies for special education services.
Instead for evaluating Jalen for special education, records show the school gave Jalen "instruction accommodations," giving him Section 504 status. The accommodations included "reducing the classroom and homework assignments."
The school also tried the Response to Intervention approach, to improve his behavior.
Jalen's mother said neither strategy worked, and so after Jalen's third suspension in a single month, Smith pulled her son out of school half way through his first grade year.
In a written statement KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth Executive Director Michael Horne admitted the school failed to do a special education evaluation on Jalen when his mother made the request, but the school "made an effort to find alternative supports to help meet the child's needs."
In his statement Horne wrote, "Looking back, we have realized that we made a mistake in not immediately granting the evaluation when it was requested. Since then, we have put a formal policy in place to immediately approve all written requests parents submit for a special needs evaluation. All staff have been trained on this new policy. We are committed to supporting all of our students, including those with special needs, to ensure they receive the excellent education they deserve and are set up for success."
Citlali's Story: School delays special education evaluation for nine-year-old until family hires a lawyer
Rosyn Espinosa and her nine-year-old daughter Citlali, have a similar story to Jalen's.
Teachers at Houston Elementary School in Lancaster ISD reported Citlali as being "very aggressive, constantly hitting her classmates," according to school records.
Teachers described her behavior as "erratic" and one school official even wrote "she has something strange in her behavior."
Espinosa said the most difficult part was watching her daughter beg not to go to school.
She said she asked to have Citlali evaluated for special education but for more than a year and aa half the school kept putting it off. It wasn't until she hired a disability rights attorney that the school did an evaluation. The result of the evaluation was that Citlali qualified for special education services.
The CBS 11 I-Team reached out to Lancaster ISD multiple times. The school district has yet to return any of the messages.
According to state reports, special education enrollment has dropped at Lancaster ISD from 10.9 percent to 8.1 percent since 2004.
Why are Texas schools putting off special education evaluations?
Kym Rogers with Disability Rights Texas said she believes the drop in special education enrollment in Texas can be directly traced back to a policy put in place by the Texas Education Agency in 2004.
It's a policy the state never publicly announced.
That year, faced with a billion-dollar budget shortfall, the TEA told school districts if its special education enrollment exceeded 8.5 percent the state would deduct points from the districts' performance report and require districts to come up with a corrective plan.
"They are graded on it," Rogers said. "I think it's very clear that the 8.5 percent has had a dramatic impact on districts and have pressured them to not find student eligible that are needing services."
The TEA declined multiple requests from the CBS 11 I-Team for an interview but provided a written statement from Commissioner of Education Mike Morath:
All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need. However, research shows it is not in the best interest of students who do not need special education support to be erroneously admitted into special education programs. As a result, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) includes language to ensure states take steps to prevent over-identification and disproportionate special education representation. Consistent with this law, in 2004 the Texas Education Agency adopted a performance monitoring system to help draw attention to the risks associated with over-identification and disproportionate representation while still ensuring all students eligible for special education services receive those services. The Texas Education Agency is committed to conducting a detailed review of this monitoring system and how it impacts Texas students… We are committed to ensuring that we support Texas students, schools, and districts and help improve outcomes for all students in Texas. The agency will continue to provide more detailed information relating to issues of special education placement.
Here's a look at the five largest school districts in North Texas.
Dallas ISD's special education enrollment dropped from 8.2 percent (2004-05) to 7.2 percent (2014-15)
Dallas ISD officials said the districts does not "operate under a cap when reviewing students for special education". A districts spokesperson said the district looks at each student separately, based on our multi-pronged process for identifying a potential special education needs.
Fort Worth ISD's special education enrollment dropped from 9.3 percent (2004-05) to 7.4 percent (2014-15)
Fort Worth ISD explained the dropped in special education enrollment in an email provided to the CBS 11 I-Team:
One major explanation for the reduction in percentages of the special education students from 2004 to current school year is attributable to the re-authorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which occurred in 2004. The change in the law addressed the national issue of over-representation of students in Special Education and instituted the Response to Intervention/Instruction process to ensure that students who exhibit challenges in academics and/or behaviors receive early interventions and have an opportunity to respond to interventions without being unnecessarily "labeled" Special Education. In addition, we have to also note that in the state of Texas, students with other exceptionalities (such as Dyslexia or Giftedness) are not included in the total count of Special Education students, as they are in many states.
A spokesperson for Fort Worth ISD also noted the districts' special education student numbers have "gradually increased every year in the last five years"
Plano ISD's special education enrollment dropped from 11.5 percent (2004-05) to 9.9 percent (2014-15)
Plano ISD issued the following statement when asked about the decline in special education enrollment:
While Plano ISD administrators are aware of the state performance indicator of 8.5% regarding special education enrollment, we remain focused on our goal to serve all of our students in line with the district's mission, "to provide an excellent education for each student." However, the 2004 performance indicator and even more so, the 1996 Texas Reading Initiative, have prompted Plano ISD to make a concerted effort to consider opportunities, such as response to intervention, that allow students to receive needed resources and remain in regular ed classrooms. These intentional practices have been successful in supporting students, and therefore some students have not needed to be identified as a child with a disability. Students have not been removed or prevented from receiving special education services as needed. Plano ISD continues to identify students based on teacher and parent input and diagnostic evaluations, while serving each student's individual needs. Although our special education enrollment rate shows a decline from 2004-2014, 2015 and 2016 have seen an increase.
Arlington ISD special education enrollment dropped from 10 percent (2004-05) to 8.2 percent (2014-15)
Garland ISD special education enrollment dropped from 10.6 percent (2004-05) to 8.3 percent (2014-15)
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