Terri Doumit, right, is pictured with her son in Lee Park in this 2016 Dispatch file photo. Doumit's son is a 16-year-old special education student at Columbus Middle School. Columbus Municipal School District's SPED department is currently under investigation by the Mississippi Department of Education after a complaint was filed alleging SPED students are being denied services. Doumit's son was denied music therapy, out of compliance with federal law mandating SPED students receive what they need to be educated. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
December 9, 2017 10:01:19 PM
Investigators with Mississippi Department of Education have been in and out of classrooms in Columbus since November, checking on all 472 students with special education needs in the Columbus Municipal School District.
The investigation is per a complaint filed on behalf of all SPED students in CMSD, alleging they are being denied access to services and accommodations federal law entitles them to, and that evaluations required to get them those services are not happening quickly enough.
Essentially, the complaint alleges, CMSD's disabled children aren't getting what they need to be educated.
Columbus resident Heather Ford said she filed the complaint with MDE on Oct. 16, a few weeks after attending a September CMSD board of trustees meeting specifically addressing what board president Jason Spears called "an amplified voice" of parents concerned about the district's SPED department.
Ford is a teacher who spent five years working for CMSD in the late 1990s and early 2000s and now teaches at a school outside the district. She has close friends with special needs children, and while not SPED-certified herself, she has taught students who require SPED accommodations -- mostly children who need speech therapy, she said.
"For years I have heard of the things that were done that were not right, the IEPs (individualized education plans) that were not done in a timely fashion, the services that they said they were going to provide that were not provided," Ford said. "When the new administration came in three years ago ... the level of care that the special needs children got, from what I understood, went down significantly."
After talking with one SPED parent who had already filed a complaint on behalf of his child, she decided to file on behalf of every student.
On Oct. 27, MDE's bureau director of the Office of Special Education sent a letter to both Ford and CMSD Superintendent Philip Hickman saying MDE had determined an investigation was necessary and that investigators would conduct on-site visits between Nov. 14, 2017 and Jan. 31, 2018.
"(MDE) could have come to us and said, 'You know what? ... I really don't feel that these things are happening, we really don't feel that there is any merit in investigating this any further,'" Ford said. "...They came to us and said on all accounts it merited investigation."
Under federal law, SPED students are entitled to services and accommodations specific to their individualized needs. The student's IEP committee meets twice a year to look at student evaluations and data to determine to what unique services the child is entitled. IEP committees are made up of the parent or guardian, the child's teachers and therapists and district representatives, along with any medical professionals, advocates or family members the parent chooses to bring to meeting with them.
Even in ideal settings, IEP meetings can be intimidating for parents of special needs children, said Leslie Junkin, a 14-year advocate with Mississippi Parent Training and Information Center that works with parents of SPED children. Junkin is the single mother of a child with Downs Syndrome who recently graduated from the Lowndes County School District.
When parents who have no background in law, medicine or education have a child who qualifies for SPED services, they're "thrust into" a world of people who know more than them, Junkin said -- about their child's condition and certainly about how education laws for SPED students work. Too often they find themselves without a voice in IEP meetings simply because they don't know what their child is or is not entitled to under the law.
As an advocate, Junkin has sat in IEP meetings with parents and gotten rundowns of services and districts all over the state. Districts with the best SPED programs, which in Junkin's opinion include Tupelo and Lee County school districts, have collaborative discussions with parents.
An 'adversarial relationship'
That's not what happens at IEP meetings at CMSD, said Jessica Jeremiah, a Columbus nurse and mother to an 11-year-old child with a brain abnormality. She said CMSD's Office of Special Programs director Donna Jones has an adversarial relationship with parents.
Jeremiah removed her own daughter from the district earlier this year. She said Jones, for three straight years, had scheduled an IEP meeting after Jeremiah and her daughter's teachers had already met and decided to continue services her daughter has received for years. At the new meetings, the same teachers who have spent time with the student weren't present, and Jones took away or tabled services those teachers previously agreed to -- most recently, music therapy.
"I think the problem I have with this whole thing is the lack of being professional, the confrontational nature of this person," Jeremiah said. "You feel intimidated, you feel bullied. (As a nurse) I have been at IEP meetings in the last four months in West Point, in Starkville, out in the county, with three different SPED directors, and the first thing out of their mouth is, 'What does the child need? What is best for the child?' Here, the attitude seems to be, 'What can I take away from the child?'"
Other parent complaints
Other parents agree with Jeremiah's sentiment.
"You don't get the feeling they're on your team," said Jim Wilson, the father of a 14-year-old SPED student enrolled in Columbus Middle School.
Earlier this school year, Wilson filed a complaint with MDE after his son wasn't evaluated to determine whether he was entitled to occupational therapy -- an evaluation Wilson said his son's IEP committee had agreed to in May.
He's not the only parent who has filed a complaint on behalf of an individual child. Terri Doumit, the mother of a 16-year-old SPED student at CMS, also filed a complaint with MDE after her son, like Jeremiah's daughter, was denied music therapy.
MDE sent Doumit and Hickman a notice on Nov. 3, saying investigators found CMSD had failed to comply with providing Doumit's son services. It said his IEP committee must meet within 60 days to ensure he -- and other students in need of music therapy -- receive services going forward and to consider compensatory services for missed sessions.
Wilson has not yet received results from his complaint -- at least not from MDE. But shortly after investigators left Columbus, his son's IEP committee scheduled another meeting for Nov. 15. There, the committee agreed Wilson's son would receive an OT evaluation, along with a paraprofessional to work just with him, something the child's parents had been fighting for throughout the last three years.
Wilson's grateful his son will now get the paraprofessional -- an aide whose job will be to stay by his side throughout the school day and take care of his unique needs. He wishes he hadn't had to wait so long to get the services.
"This is a small step in the right direction," he said. "By no means does it cure the deficiencies that I believe exist across the board for special needs children in Columbus in the school district."
Doumit was less lucky. She said Jones told her the district could not provide music therapy services for her son and would remain out of compliance.
Problems started three years ago
All three parents -- Jeremiah, Wilson and Doumit -- said they had been pleased with CMSD up until about three years ago, when Hickman became superintendent and Jones became director of OSP.
It hadn't been perfect before, and they understood they couldn't have everything they wanted for their children. But the relationships they had with teachers and administrators were good, and they felt they had a voice in IEP committees. Wilson and Doumit both said they are extremely happy with their children's teachers, but they feel those teachers are limited because of barriers the administration has created.
Neither Jones nor Hickman responded to multiple contact attempts from The Dispatch.
Hickman did not return four calls to his work cell phone and two messages left with his secretary over the last two weeks. He replied to an email last week saying he would set up a meeting between a Dispatch reporter and Jones and then did not. A subsequent phone call to Jones' office was not returned.
Personnel positions left vacant
Both Doumit and Wilson, along with other parents, brought their concerns to the school board's attention at the special-call September meeting that inspired Ford's complaint -- concerns which included the length of time it was taking for students to get evaluations and services.
Jones and Hickman said at the meeting the district was meeting all deadlines mandated by federal law. If evaluations and services take the maximum time to be completed, it's because the district is contracting out many of those services to Mississippi State University, which has graduate students complete the evaluations.
Positions are vacant for district personnel who would normally work full-time with CMSD students to complete evaluations and provide services, many of them for several years.
This was troubling to board president Jason Spears, who wanted to know why the district didn't have employees who could provide these services to students more quickly.
"We're being told we're fully funded but yet we're finding out that there were missing personnel and that we're contracting services out," he said.
Open positions on the district's website include three speech and language pathologists, a school psychologist, a psychometrist and a SPED teacher for Fairview Elementary -- all positions which would serve SPED students in the district. Hickman previously told The Dispatch some of those positions had not been filled since before he came to the district.
Jones said at the meeting there were no qualified candidates to fill the positions.
Spears suggested the district could supplement the federal funding Jones' department receives from MDE to offer a higher salary and hopefully entice more qualified candidates for those positions. However, Jones has said the SPED department is adequately funded.
Spears said he isn't convinced. He understands MDE allocates a portion of federal SPED funds to the district based on the number of SPED students and their needs, but says the district could supplement that money with local funds to address concerns that students aren't getting services or that positions aren't being filled -- go "over and above" the formula, he said. The district has money in reserve to do that.
However, the board has not taken any action since the meeting either to address funding or the other complaints parents raised. Spears said the board has to be mindful it doesn't overstep its bounds and do the job the administration should be doing. He plans for the board to receive an update to the SPED department in January to see how Hickman and Jones have addressed parents' issues.
Meanwhile, Ford said she hopes to be a voice for parents of special needs children who are "bogged down" by the 24-7 job of taking care of a severely disabled child.
"I feel that we're called on, as human beings ... to care for the people that can't necessarily care for themselves," she said. "If we can't care for the least of our citizens in Columbus, the ones with special needs, then we're in trouble as a community."
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