Investigators from the Mississippi Department of Education are trying to determine whether Biloxi Public Schools has been improperly segregating, restraining and neglecting students with disabilities while failing to provide them an appropriate education as required by federal law.
The school district is denying the allegations contained in a systemic administrative complaint filed by Disability Rights Mississippi, the nonprofit agency designated by the state under federal law to provide advocacy and legal representation for Mississippians with disabilities.
Unlike individual complaints typically filed by parents on behalf of their children, systemic complaints – which address classroom-, school- or district-based problems – are very rare, state education officials said. The Biloxi case is the only one the state education department received this school year, compared with 52 individual complaints.
“We’re going to cooperate fully with the state department . . . and, hopefully clear this up without any problems,” said Biloxi Schools Superintendent Arthur McMillan.
The complaint, obtained by the Sun Herald and McClatchy, was filed Dec. 3 on behalf of an autistic 9-year-old boy and roughly a dozen of his former classmates in the special education classroom for autistic students at Gorenflo Elementary School.
It claims that students in the class were removed from the general school population and improperly “warehoused” in the special needs classroom, where they had no interaction with their non-disabled peers and typically spent hours each day without receiving adequate instruction.
Five children in the class also were placed in high chair-like supportive seats known as “hardrock chairs” for long hours without adequate restroom breaks, according to James Holland, the 9-year-old boy’s private behavior analyst.
The complaint says five children in the classroom were placed in high chair-like supportive seats known as “hardrock chairs” for long hours without adequate restroom breaks.
Another autistic child was doubled over in his hardrock chair, asleep face down with his head in a blanket for about 45 minutes, posing a suffocation risk, Holland said.
Neither McMillan nor state officials would discuss the particulars of the case, citing privacy concerns and the ongoing investigation.
It was Holland’s personal observations and photos taken during a dozen or so classroom visits last August and September that sparked the complaint.
“During my visits (to the classroom), I saw many things, which in my personal and professional opinion, constitute not only denial of a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment, but also abuse and neglect of disabled children,” Holland wrote in an affidavit.
The accusations, if true, would be violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that guides the way states provide special education and related services for the nation’s 6.5 million young people with disabilities.
During my visits (to the classroom), I saw many things, which in my personal and professional opinion, constitute not only denial of a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment, but also abuse and neglect of disabled children.
James Holland, the 9-year-old boy’s private behavior analyst, in his affidavit
The act requires that, “to the maximum extent possible,” students with disabilities “are educated with children who are not disabled.” Disabled children should only be taught separately, the law says, when “education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”
The complaint claims these and other alleged violations have denied the students a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment as required by the education act. The complaint also claims the district is failing the students by not developing, implementing and adjusting their individualized education programs, known as IEPs, which are designed to meet their special needs. Instead of providing individual instruction based on the students’ learning difficulties, Holland said, students in the class were being taught mainly as a group even though they had varying degrees of disability.
After Holland, the 9-year-old boy’s parents and a child advocate from Disability Rights Mississippi met with school officials to discuss the concerns, the boy was no longer placed in the hardrock chair.
But Holland said he was told in September he could only work with the boy in a separate classroom because his presence compromised the privacy of other students. In October, he said, he was barred from the school entirely until the board approved a “memorandum of understanding,” outlining the rules under which individuals who were not under contract with the school district may or may not provide behavioral therapy for children with autism.
“I believe they figured out pretty quickly they’d been caught red-handed neglecting and more or less abusing kids and I was the source. So you know, ‘circle the wagons and keep this guy out of here,’” Holland said.
The complaint says the district hasn’t appropriately conducted functional behavioral assessments that determine the purpose behind students’ problem behavior; hasn’t adequately developed, implemented or revised intervention plans that help students address such behavior; and hasn’t provided enough related services for the students, like social skills training and counseling services.
In a laundry list of remedies, the disability rights group wants the district to fix the problems or close the special education class, implement a corrective comprehensive action plan, hire a consultant to oversee it and provide district-wide training for school personnel dealing with disabled students.
The call for district-wide training stems from similar individual cases in Biloxi schools, said Wendell Hutchinson, the group’s Jackson-based education team managing attorney.
Biloxi Public Schools Special Services Director Steve Huckaby, in his written response to the accusations
“We know there are problems in the district,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve had multiple cases where we’ve seen the need for district-wide training.”
In a written response filed Dec. 17, Steve Huckaby, Biloxi Public Schools’ special services director, said all the accusations are “without merit.” The school district has provided documents to state investigators to support the district’s response that the children were properly cared for and that the accusations – including the claims of improper mechanical restraint with the hardrock chairs – are untrue.
“The hardrock chair was beneficial in giving (the 9-year-old) a work surface that aided him in being able to sit and attend to task and not strike other students and staff,” Huckaby wrote. And when the child’s parents asked that their son not be placed in the chair, “the District complied with their request even though it was never used in an effort to restrain the student, but only to be able to put some space between him and other students,” Huckaby wrote.
The 9-year-old boy’s father, whose name is being withheld to ensure his son’s privacy, said the boy was kept in the chair all day, often to the point of soiling his trousers.
“Those chairs are only supposed to be used if there is a medical need,” the father said. “The last time I checked, Steve Huckaby is not a developmental pediatrician.”
The father eventually built a home in a neighboring school district and moved there so his son could transfer to another school.
“Once this happened and I started having problems with the school, that was the last straw,” he said. “That was the deciding factor to move.”
The state’s on-site investigation will include personal interviews with Holland and school officials, on-site visits and a review of district files and documents, according to state education officials.
The state must issue its finding in the case by Feb. 4. If violations are found, the state will require the school district to submit a corrective action plan that could take several months to complete, depending on what’s needed.
In followup visits, the state would then have to confirm that the problems were rectified. The school district has 12 months from the date of the department’s decision in the case to get a clearance letter confirming that the problems have been resolved.
If the district exceeds the 12-month time line, the department can impose additional sanctions, like requiring a specific consultant to work with the district on fixing the outstanding problems as soon as possible. Or, as a last resort, the state can order a hearing to begin the process of revoking the district’s federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding.
Disability Rights Mississippi wants the school district to close the class or fix the problems in the special education class and provide compensatory educational services to make up for instruction that the students were allegedly denied. It also wants the district to hire an outside consultant who will develop and help implement a corrective action plan and oversee the IEPs of students in the class.
The group also wants a separate technical adviser to provide district-wide training for all school personnel on how to properly serve students with autism; how to develop and implement individual education plans for students with disabilities; and how to determine the least restrictive environment to implement those plans.
It’s also calling for district-wide training on how segregation and mechanical restraint of students with disabilities violates their rights under federal law.