Federal monitor finds phony records used to lie about special ed progress in Newark

There are no words...
There are no words…

Employees of the state-run administration of the Newark schools may have tampered with documents essential for determining whether the state-operated district is complying with a federal court decision designed to ensure the city’s special education children are receiving services required by law.  Priscilla Petrosky, a court-appointed monitor reported that some obviously phony records  “compromised” the validity of assurances given to the court that the district was trying to comply with its order.

Petrosky also said the obvious manipulation of special education files raised issues about the “credibility” and “legitimacy” of documents the district’s state-appointed employees produced to prove it was complying with the court order.

The Education Law Center, which brought the underlying federal case on behalf of the city’s special education children, issued a statement indicating it had asked the state Attorney General  to “investigate whether anyone in NPS may have engaged in improper employment conduct or violated any laws. ”

Priscilla Petrosky
Priscilla Petrosky

Petrosky found undated letters–all uniformly worded– in student files that contradicted other information in those files, leading her to believe they did not accurately reflect how well the district was complying with the federal court order handed down in 2012. The order imposed strict deadlines on the district for providing essential services to special needs children.

Indeed, Petrosky wrote, the state of the files indicates that–despite earlier assurances of progress from the state-run district–the leaders of the Newark schools may have made no progress at all.

In Newark, the state is hurting the least of our brethren--special ed kids
In Newark, the state is hurting the least of our brethren–special ed kids

Probably the most damning evidence of deliberate tampering with the files is contained in Petrosky’s finding that the questionable documents were contained only in files that were given to the monitor for review. The monitor could not look at all files. The Education Law Center reported:

“The Court-appointed Monitor overseeing a class action settlement to improve special education in the State-operated Newark Public Schools (NPS) has raised serious questions about the validity of a key record in the NPS files of children seeking special education services. The questionable records are uniformly written, undated letters containing the date for determining whether NPS has complied with a Court-imposed, 90-day deadline for providing services to children with disabilities. The letters were found only in those files taken from district schools to the NPS central office for purposes of the Monitor’s review. “

The basic issue is whether assurances given by the state-operated district to the court-appointed monitor–assurances that some progress had been made in servicing the children–were deliberately falsified. Elizabeth Athos, the senior attorney for the law center, reported:

“The Monitor’s findings that the records may not be authentic suggest the undated letters placed in students’ files may have been an attempt by an employee or employees of the State-operated NPS to improperly raise the district’s compliance rate.

The Education Law Center's David Sciarra
The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra

“As NPS’s self-reported progress in meeting court-imposed deadlines has inched forward over the last three years, the all-important rate at which that progress can be verified by the Monitor has sharply dropped.”

The monitoring of the special education program was part of a settlement of a class-action law suit entitled M.A. v. Newark Public Schools. The settlement also required the district to improve identification and evaluation of students and to achieve a 95 percent compliance rate in “identifying, evaluating, and implementing” individualized education programs for eligible children within 90 days, according to the law center.

In July, the district informed the monitor it had achieved a 48 percent “success rate” in servicing special needs students. But, in reviewing the documents, Petrosky found only a compliance rate of 17 percent–and that figure assumes the questionable records were, in fact, legitimate.

If consideration of the possibly phony documents is eliminated, Petrosky reported, the actual compliance rate would be 0 percent.

Special needs students have been special victims of the state-run operation of Newark schools. Members of the city’s child study teams (CSTs) that evaluate children have reported that top officials of the state-run district have pushed them to talk parents out of seeking special help for their disabled children. Other educators have reported the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of some special needs children have been changed without the consent of parents.

At the same time, while nearly tripling the amount of public funds (from $91 million to $225 million) going to the city’s privately-operated charter schools–which take few, if any, special needs students–the state has sharply cut back on funding for the city’s neediest students. The law center reported:

“A major obstacle to improving special education services is the deep budget cuts made by NPS over the last three years. These cuts have had a major impact on the delivery of special education. In 2011-12, Newark spent $14,139 per classified student on the delivery of special education supports and services. By 2014-15, per pupil spending had fallen 18% to $11,482. The statewide average special education cost in New Jersey’s school funding formula in 2014-15 was $15,596.

“The major reason for these cuts is the Christie Administration’s refusal to provide all public school districts with the aid increases required by the State’s funding formula. In 2015-16, NPS was underfunded by over $130 million in state aid.”

“This latest report from the Monitor shows the State-operated NPS simply lacks the commitment and capacity to meet the needs of children with disabilities under federal and state law,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director.

“The Christie Administration has chronically underfunded the district, while allowing charter school payments to grow every year with no assessment of the impact on the delivery of special education services. Children with disabilities are far from the public spotlight surrounding school reform in Newark. Their plight, however, is becoming more dire and desperate.”

 

 

23 comments

  1. jean sanders

    isn’t this similar to what the VA did in some places when they created false time lines and dates showing they were fulfilling services for veterans? I think there is an insidious push from Washington as well . Melody Musgrove in OSEP is the person who sends out the “dear colleague” letters to states ; she has been quoted as saying she wants to “disrupt IEP teams”…. and initiate her accountability regimen — When they say “accountability” it is the same old test and punish. M. Musgrove says accountability is her focus (compliance is not the issue for her office)….

  2. Mystified

    Camden Elementary has altered IEPs to reduce the level of services provided to certain Special Needs students. Some students whose IEPs stated that they be placed in self-contained Special Education classes were moved to “inclusion” classes. Others had their classifications altered so that a BD student, for example, might be placed in an LD class. Limits on the numbers of students allowed to be serviced in classes for severely autistic children were disregarded. In some cases, parents were informed that their children would benefit from a reduced level of services. In addition, some bilingual Special Education students were not given the appropriate ESL/Bilingual services as designated in their IEPs. Furthermore, when the ESL/Bilingual program was eliminated at Thirteenth Avenue, bilingual Special Education Students were denied the services stipulated in their IEPs. General education students were offered the opportunity to transfer to another school to continue to receive services. Parents who did not wish to move their children signed waivers to remove their children from the ESL / Bilingual program. MD students at Branch Brook who had been receiving ESL/Bilingual services were similarly denied when the program at that school was ended. It appears that there is a pattern of reducing
    the level of services to Special Needs students in the Newark Public Schools. Moreover, the policy of charter schools refusing to enroll expensive to educate, high needs Special Needs students further restricts the “choices” available to these families in Newark. In a zero sum game, parents who exercise charter school “choices” for their children, thereby deny “choices” to the parents of the most needy children in the city.

  3. Newcomer

    Bob,

    In your first paragraph you provide a link to Petrosky’s report. On page 3 of her report Petrosky says her report only addresses Section I in the settlement agreement. She indicates other ‘noncompliance’ findings can be found in other reports. Do you have access to the other reports which delineate the other Special Education noncompliance areas?

    Thank the Lord for the Education Law Center’s digging and for your reporting…

    Bob Braun: Not yet.

  4. Jose Delgado

    Who will send the Commissioner to the corner for a time out? Only thing I can say is that it is happening in Camden and that the non-English speakers are also not receiving receiving appropriate services.

  5. Mr. Outside

    Camden Elementary is not unique in that regard. Having spoken to colleagues at other renew schools, this appears to be a pattern. Given the scrutiny The renew Schools are/were under as the previous superintendent’s special initiative to engage reform, I wonder whether or not denying special education students the resources they needed served the purposes of raising the renew schools’ profiles to disguise their failure as well as redirect money to charters.

    • Mystified

      Mr. Outside,

      Altering Special Ed classifications would presumably do little to improve test scores. More than half the Camden Elementary population is classified Special Ed. How would these maneuvers paint the school in a better light?

      • Mr. Outside

        Mystified,

        That’s a good point. But the state monitor’s function was to observe how the district was complying with the court mandate to deliver special education resources, not testing. So from The District administration’s perspective, I imagine reducing the number of Special education students they have to accommodate simultaneously increases the percentage of Special education students they promised the courts they would deliver resources to. Simply, the district promised to do a better job by it’s special education students, but the courts never specified by how many students. That loophole allows the district to define the size of the special needs population in favor of manufactured results. By that measure, the district didn’t only cook the books, it also tried to rig the game; count the cards; beat the house, if you will. Coincidentally, the Renew initiatives launched the same year as the court ordered mandates. The District administration made a ridiculous wager. They would increase the success rate in special education from 17% to 95%? They can’t even get modest gains in the general population. To make such a bet took confidence knowing that there was an ace to be played at some point in the game.

        The delivery of Special education resources extends well beyond the IEP. It may also include transportation. Bob writes in an earlier article how the district makes a concerted push to reduce the population of Special needs students. It all boils down to money, but the greater implication is that the district and it’s state led administration make no delineation between students and dollars it costs to educate them. The district is willing to launder either or.

        So, by altering IEPs, renew schools including Camden were finding it more manageable to pretend to deliver special education resources a handful of classified students rather than half a school full of classified students. For the district it ends up being a win-win. Fewer special needs students to be legally obliged to, and proof that unproven reform models like renew schools work. We know they don’t. But if the monitor didn’t discover these irregularities, the falsification could have validated Anderson, Turnamian, and elevated the renew School profile as a working, scaleable reform model.

        • Mystified

          These details are fascinating!
          I had no idea the charade was so complicated. I could only see it as depriving children of needed services.

      • Kyeatta

        They were changing the recommendations not the classifications. According to the federal “fair student funding” guidelines, children who are in self contained Settings bring in Less money to the school. Children who are mainstreamed into Integrated Co-Teaching Settings bring the most funding into the school. The IEP’s I’ve seen from Newark parents are so bogus that technically parents could file Federal Complaints against the district and folks would go to jail. According to IDEA and Federal Laws, the entire district is out of compliance. I’ve not seen one IEP that shows what the child’s present level of performance is, there is no data that describes the child’s functioning, they didn’t even write anything of merit about the students that would tell a special education teacher what type of differentiated instruction the child requires. You can’t determine what the child’s goals are…it’s a travesty. I’m a Special Ed Evaluator in NYC but I live in Newark. When trying to assist parents with understanding their child’s IEP’s the ones I’ve seen were so deplorable, that I shared an IEP that I wrote with the name blacked out to show parents what is supposed to be written in a child’s IEP. All that followed were tears and disbelief. Many of the Special Education Students in the district were without placements last school year, meaning many of them didn’t have a seat in any school in Newark last school year. The numbers are in the thousands. It’s criminal. Someone needs to be remanded to Federal Prison for these crimes against our most vulnerable children and their families.

        • booklady

          Kyeatta, Have you contacted individual members of the State Board of Education? If their only input is from NPS SASuperintendent’s monthly reports, they won’t know the extent of problems you noted.

          Senator R Rice may be receptive to helping.

        • Mr. Outside

          Theoretically, that many displaced students would leave behind a pretty significant paper trail. What we know of the One Newark process is that it primarily affected Pre-K and Kindergarten, 6th grade, high-school and transfer students. We obviously don’t know who specifically the special needs students are, but we should be able to evaluate the change in special ed enrollments in the district from the years prior to the renew initiative and the present as well as differences in special ed enrollment before One Newark and after.

          If the change is precipitous, then there’s the trail, and so begins the journey.

    • Robin

      Who will be held accountable for these actions. Maybe those CSTs should be directed to the Nonexsistent Rubber Room until they divulge who gave the orders for them to commit these crimes.

      • cocoaadvocate

        Who said that it was the CST’s who “committed these crimes?”

        Think about it: If this falsification of records was done by district CST’s, then why would they find that verification document in ONLY those files reviewed? Why wouldn’t that document be in all files of those particular CSTs? Remember, the files that were reviewed were from MULTIPLE schools throughout the district (go to ELC’s website and click the hyperlink for the actual report the monitor’s wrote).

        Trust me, this cover up is much larger than CST’s. Perhaps Special Ed’s former Asst Supt who high tailed it out of NPS right before this damning report was written has the answers? This baffling compliance drop happened under her watch. I hear she’s in Boston now. Let’s find her and ask her to comment on the wreckage she’s left for these babies.

  6. DeeplyConcerned

    Shameful, especially since it’s children who suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, asking Christie’s lapdog Attorney General to investigate may be as useful as asking Randy Mastro to investigate.

  7. DAMAGER

    As a former educator and administrator in the great city of Newark, I can attest to specific examples of where children would not receive services that were required by law. When I spoke about it I was demoted back to teacher. It was common practice to disregard the law. The only administrators that lasted were the ones who played ball! Fortunately for me, I was able to take my talent to a different district and give the students what they deserve. You can guarantee at my school that your child will be receiving the services they deserve as required by law. How many NPS administrators can say that? The place is doomed, they are too far into this to stop. I wish there was something more I could do. My dream was to be a principal in Newark since the time I was 3. That dream was cut short because of politics. I’m truly at a loss. What can we do?

    • cocoaadvocate

      Do know that there are lots of us still there fighting the good fight for our babies. Indeed, choosing to be an advocate does come with a professional cost. However, given that so many educators (including admins) who have the degrees, diction, poise, and power to give them voice have chosen to sit obediently while Newark’s children are being denied basic FAPE, I’ll choose the professional casualties any day. Where’s the integrity? If those of us who have so much cower and chose to remain silent, then what do we expect from those who don’t? Ugh!!

      Bob Braun: Amen.

  8. harriet tubman

    Bob,
    You can sure twist things around. You write an entire piece on the failure of the district to do its job and then at the end….it’s the charter school’s fault. Well as charter’s increase its special education numbers, thank God we aren’t sacrificing our special education students at NPS.

    Bob Braun: You are disgracing your pseudonym. You would accept sacrificing some children for others. I wouldn’t. The theft of funds from the public schools by privately operated charters is well-documented as a cause of cuts in budgets for the city’s children, most especially special needs students. It’s been admitted by Cerf, Anderson, Baraka.

  9. Pingback: False Special Ed. Progress Reports Found in Newark, NJ | AFSA

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