Everything You Need to Know About Special Education in New Rochelle (but were afraid to ask)

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If you suspect your child has a disability or your child has a documented disability then there are certain steps you need to follow in order to get services for your child through the New Rochelle school district.

All children with disabilities are entitled to special education services under federal law; how that law gets carried out differs from state to state so you also need to know New York State law. The actual implementation of special education law occurs at the local level. Due to recent changes in New York State law, students no longer seek services from the school district in which they reside. Instead, students must seek services in the school district in which their school is located, that district then bills back the home district for services provided to the student. For public school students the law does not change anything; for private and parochial school students this is a significant change as you must now to deal exclusively with the City School District of New Rochelle for Special Education services.

Just as important as understanding the law and the process of seeking special education services is understanding the motives of the people who you will deal with in the school district. The goals of the City School District of New Rochelle are very different than the goals of a parent. Your child is viewed as an expense by the District. Parents must understand that the District’s primary goal is to keep costs down so they are never going to be an “honest broker” of information. As a general rule, never rely on the District for information on your rights as a parent, never sign any document unless your lawyer or special education advisor tells you that you must sign it and never ever make oral agreements with the District. Once you waive your rights or make oral agreements you are the mercy of the District and, as many parents have learned the hard way, that is not a good place to be.

The specific process for getting services for your child are complex but failure to understand this process can cost you thousands of dollars or worse, result in your child not getting services that can have a significant, positive impact on your child’s development.

Everything begins with the CSE Committee. Your goal as a parent is to get to that committee initially (called an “Initial CSE”) and to make sure the District holds a CSE review every 12 months thereafter (called an “Annual CSE”). Some of the first lies you will be told by the District is that it is OK if your child does not get their Initial CSE 30 days after you make a formal written request (called a “Referral to the CSE”). You will also be lied to each year and told that it’s OK if you child does not get their annual review every 12 months. Specifically, the District seeks to push back all annual reviews to the very end of the school year. Because they are not very good at time management they invariably fail to complete all the annual review during the last quarter of the school year. They then try to hold the CSE meetings over the summer but teachers, special educators and school psychologists are not required to work over the summer so many of these CSE meetings will be pushed back until the fall. What that can mean is that if you child is referred to the CSE in October of year one and a CSE is held in November of year one (within 30 days of the referral) then the annual review may not be scheduled until June of year two (19 months after the initial review) which is against the law (the term they use is “not in compliance”). If the District gets backed up they push the review back to the fall which can mean your child’s first annual review may take place two years after the initial CSE. Of course, the effect is cumulative and impacts not just your child but over 1,000 other children who are supposed to have CSE meetings each year. As a result the District is almost always out of compliance.

Because this information is not made public and because there is no real oversight, the District gets away with what are clear violations of state and federal law and violations of student’s civil rights. Even when the District does hold a CSE for a student they often fail to meet other legal obligations such as providing parents copies of all the documents that will be used to make a decision at the CSE meeting prior to the meeting, writing an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) within 30 days, getting parental approval for IEPs written following an initial CSE, and distributing IEPs to the student’s teachers in a timely basis (for annual reviews this means prior to the beginning of the next school year). It is why the District will routinely write two IEPs for one CSE meeting, one for the current year and one for the following year even thought this is illegal. It is also why the District will fabricate documents, backdate documents, coerce parents into signing forms waiving the parent’s rights, presenting information in English when the dominant language in the household is some other language and so on.

Put simply, the District is not your friend. There is a lot of money at stake and they do not want to turn it over to you unless they absolutely must. This is especially true if you child is enrolled in a private or parochial school in New Rochelle. This is not to say there are not many excellent teachers in New Rochelle. There are many great teachers as well as many very good special educators and school psychologists but they do not make policy. If they are honest with you, they are just as frustrated as the parents with the behavior of the District. Put another way, the City School District of New Rochelle is a corrupt enterprise and some of the ways that corruption manifest itself is in lying to parents, fabricating or backdating documents, altering official school records, and otherwise creating as many roadblocks as possible to parents getting services and support for their child.

When it comes to Special Education, there are specific games the District plays:

1) Reduce the amount of services mandated by the CSE committee by keeping parents away from the CSE committee in the first place.

2) Employ delaying tactics to drag out the process as much as possible.

3) If deny and delay do not work, fool the parents into signing away their right to a CSE committee meeting.

4) When all else fails and the parent actually gets to the point of a CSE meeting then withhold documents and pressure parents to give the District a blank check in writing the IEP.

Believe it or not, if you get this far your troubles have only really just begun. As noted, the District will play games each and every year by delaying annual reviews. At the implementation level, they will simply not provide the services required. Worse, they will then falsify the official record to create the appearance that all required services were provided. If a parent challenges the District you will then find that you do not have the right to bring the District to court but must go through something called an “Impartial Hearing” process which is a particularly corrupt and one-sided arbitration process where parents rarely win.

Even if you do win, the District can appeal and the odd are that the District will win on appeal. The Wall Street Journal ran a front page story which disclosed “a pattern that has many parents and advocates for the disabled in an uproar. They say administrative reviews in many parts of the U.S. overwhelmingly back school districts in disputes over paying for special-education services.” The Journal revealed that the situation in New York is particularly bad due to an egregious conflict of interest involving Paul Kelly, the State Review Officer:

New York’s Mr. Kelly is a particular target of special-education parents’ anger. A study by Pamela Steen, a Patchogue, N.Y., lawyer for parents, found that he granted full or partial relief to districts in 60 of their 70 appeals, or 86%, in 2006 and 2007.

New York created Mr. Kelly’s office in 1990 after a federal court ruled it was a conflict of interest for the state education commissioner to judge appeals. The state reimburses districts for some special-education costs. Although the state education department employs Mr. Kelly, he is required to act independently of it.

The uproar came to a boil when when The Wall Street Journal revealed that Mr. Kelly is involved in a personal relationship with an attorney for the New York State Education Department:

Mr. Kelly’s independence is compromised by his relationship with Kathleen Surgalla, an assistant counsel for the state education department. Ms. Surgalla has trained the part-time officers who conduct the initial hearings and handled other special-education matters. Mr. Kelly and Ms. Surgalla live together in an Albany suburb, voter-registration records show.

Lawyers representing parents have called on the Governor to launch a full-scale investigation into the matter.

Beyond the long odds parents face, there are several changes in the law which have led the District to adopt new policies that help them in their quest to reduce the cost of dealing with you which the article makes clear – placing the burden on parents to “prove” their case. As parents have learned, this is something that is difficult to do since the District maintains all of the records and controls access to the school.

Two new policies have a direct impact:

a) 504 Referrals No Longer Get Full Work Ups – the District will no longer conduct a full work up on your child if you request a referral to the 504 Committee instead of a referral to the CSE Committee. Section 504 of the federal IDEA law is a civil rights law that requires the District to provide certain services and accommodations to a student even if they are not classified as having a disability that would rise to the level of a referral to the CSE committee. While the CSE Committee may decide that your child does not need to be classified based on a disability, there is absolutely no advantage to you to make a request for a referral to the 504 Committee. You can only get less services by going straight to the 504 Committee, the District will not provide a full work up on your child if you go to the 504 Committee first. Of course, the only real way for the CSE committee to determine whether a 504 Plan or an IEP make the most sense is if they do the full work up on your child so again there is just no good reason to go this route at the outset. Go to the CSE first and then have the CSE Committee make a formal referral to the 504. You get piece of mind and a complete set of all the documents produced to evaluate your child including medical reports, educational and psychological evaluations, teacher reports and classroom observations, all of which serve as a valuable baseline for use in future meetings with the District or as a basis for disputing the decision of the CSE through an impartial hearing.

b) Response to Intervention (“RTI”) – a recent change in the law allows the District to, in effect, defer classifying a student until such time as various forms of “intervention” have been tried and showed to have failed. This actually makes sense and can be a good thing but this is a weapon in the District’s arsenal that can be used as a delaying tactic so parents need to be very careful about RTI. Parents can hire tutors to help with things like math or reading or work with the classroom teacher to give the child extra support and this may help. The problem is that the District’s definition of what constitutes “intervention” might be different than the parents definition as is a definition of “failure” to get a response to intervention. Rather than take any chances, the wisest course of action is to put the matter before the CSE Committee and have the CSE Committee make a formal RTI recommendation. By going this route, the District is forced to articulate exactly what qualifies as sufficient intervention, what sort of time frame they want to use and what constitutes success or failure. Even better, since the District is recommending an RTI program they have to pay for it. This is significant because the cost of certain RTI programs can be expensive.

So, how can parents level the playing field and make sure their rights and those of their child are protected?

1) Make an airtight request for a Referral to the CSE.

A. All parents should use the following sample letter to draft your own letter; for parents in private or parochial schools the District will insist that you also submit a special form: Request for Special Education Services for Private School Students. These documents start the clock ticking on the 30 day window until the CSE meeting must take place; both documents grant the District the right to obtain certain documents that are needed for the CSE Committee.

B. Provide a completed HIPPA release form. Access to medical records may not be necessary in all cases but better safe than sorry. By signing and submitting the HIPPA release form you remove one additional pretext for the District to delay your access to the CSE.

C. Include the following documents in your requests for a referral to the CSE

(1) reports cards/transcripts (schools should have this)
(2) progress reports (schools should have this)
(3) standardized testing (e.g., ELA, Math, Iowa, TONNYS, etc.)
(4) primary pediatrician reports/medical records from specialists (use the District’s Health Appraisal Form)
(5) completed HIPPA release form authorizing the District to contact physicians directly to obtain information about my child
(6) proof of residence (2 utility bills showing my New Rochelle address) or proof of enrollment in a non-public school (a report card or a letter from the principal)

D. Send your request certified or registered mail or overnight delivery with signature required. This is a legal process and you must get everything in writing, get signed documents back from the District and always communicate with the District via some form of registered mail.

E. Do not accept anything other than a full CSE.

F. Do not agree to so-called “pre-CSE meetings”.

G. Do not sign any documents withdrawing your request for a CSE prior to the CSE. The District will typically attempt to get parents to sign either something like a Agreement to Withdraw Referral or a modified version of a form for Parental Approval of an Individual Evaluation in which they will add the term “non-CSE” so that it reads “Parental Approval for a Non-CSE Evaluation“. Never sign any documents like this. As you can see, there will be nothing to stop the District from adding the phrase “non-CSE” after you sign the agreement. In either case, by signing any of the documents you have waived your rights to a CSE and put yourself at the mercy of the District which is a very bad place to be.

H. Do not sign any documents before, during or after the CSE except a “finalized” IEP and in that case, only for initial referrals to the CSE. The District will attempt to get you to sign a document entitled CSE/Placement/Services Recommendations Parent Approval. This is a document purporting to be a summary of the recommendations of the CSE for your child but is, in fact, another trick by the District. The purpose is to get the parent to consent to the recommendations of the District on the spot without being afforded the opportunity to review the legal, finalized IEP document and to have the opportunity to consult with counsel or other advisors. The District will be very matter of fact about this document, pretending it is standard operating procedure for parents to sign at the end of the meeting. Do not believe it. There is no legal requirement for parents to sign such an agreement; the District wants it so it can use it against you in the event of a dispute over the IEP including an Impartial Hearing. The District is very good at writing the language of this document so that you think it reflects what you agreed to during the CSE meeting but will result in significant differences between what you thought had been agreed to and what ends up in the IEP or how that IEP is implemented.

I. At the CSE meeting, get a copy of the attendance sheet as proof of whether all required members of the CSE committee were present. This includes a psychologist, a general education teacher, a special education teacher. The chairperson of the meeting may wear two hats either as the chair and special educator or chair and psychologist. If appropriate a physician/nurse or therapist is required. For initial CSEs a “parent member” must also be present. It is quite common for the District to attempt to hold a CSE meeting without a fully-constituted committee so having proof of this is very important (note: you should always refuse to proceed with any CSE that is not a fully-constituted CSE meeting)

J. After the CSE meeting, an IEP is draft and “finalized”. This is a legally binding document. For initial CSE meeting, the District is required to obtain parental signature to implement the program and therefore must send parents a copy. For annual CSE meetings, the District is not required to obtain a parental signature unless the program is more restrictive than the original CSE. Regardless, you should always demand a copy of the IEP. By law, the District is required to finalize the IEP within 30 days of the CSE meeting and begin implementing the program.

K. Obtain a copy of the resolution delivered to the Board of Education prior to the board meeting and make sure the resolution accurately reflects what was agreed to at the CSE and what the IEP says. Where possible, attend the board meeting. Always obtain a copy of the minutes of the board meeting for your files through the office of the clerk of the school district.