Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran

State says Sarasota County schools likely caused irreparable harm to students

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Sarasota Herald Tribune | by Ryann McKinnon | December 9, 2020

A Department of Education investigation into the Sarasota County School District’s exceptional student education program was released Tuesday evening, with the conclusion that district officials have been placing students without severe cognitive disabilities into Access Points, an alternative program reserved for children with the most profound challenges.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran issued the results in a damning letter that placed significant new sanctions on the district, with the threat of losing special education funding if it did not comply.

“The actions of your district have likely caused irreparable harm to the students in the forefront of this issue, which may never truly be quantified,” the commissioner wrote. “… It is imperative that the district stop blaming former colleagues and past administrations and take responsibility for corrective action immediately.”

“To date, I am not convinced that the district is consistently acting with students’ interest at the forefront,” Corcoran wrote.

District spokesman Craig Maniglia was not immediately available for comment. 

The state investigation was sparked by the “DJ” case, where special education advocates Sue Memminger and Susan Magers uncovered evidence showing that school officials had shifted more than 100 students without severe disabilities into Access Points and then claimed ignorance of the practice under oath.

DJ was one of those students, and after a two-year legal battle, the district settled with his family for $250,000 last week. The DOE launched its investigation last year after a judge ruled that school officials had robbed him of his right to an education.

DOE investigators reviewed 66 sample student files and found that 27 of those students (41%) were either improperly placed or lacked the necessary documentation to show that the student belonged in the program.

The investigation was not an exhaustive review of all the children on Access Points, but the results paint a troubling picture of the district’s program that is reserved for the most vulnerable.

Experts say Access Points is an appropriate program for students who need it, but it comes with severe limitations.

Students who graduate with an Access Points diploma are not eligible for college or military service, and many will never be able to do work beyond an early elementary school level. It is designed for students with “severe cognitive disabilities,” a term for students that were once frequently classified as “mentally retarded.”

If 41% of the cases the state reviewed came back showing the student either didn’t belong in the program or the district hadn’t done due diligence to ensure they did, that raises concerns about the entire program, board member Bridget Ziegler said.

“That has raised serious alarms for me,” Ziegler said. “… This outlines some very serious concerns and red flags and transfers that responsibility to our current superintendent. I think there needs to be people held accountable, absolutely.”

Corcoran said the investigation did not find sufficient evidence to show the district transferred students to protect school grades or benefit financially. Students in Access Points are exempt from state tests and bring in more per-pupil funding than their peers in mainstream classrooms.  

Corcoran’s letter does not specify what the district should do with the 27 students the state concluded may have been wrongly placed. In DJ’s case, the district ultimately has to pay for years of private schooling to make up for lost time, along with the settlement payout.

However, the new sanctions Corcoran placed on the district are aimed largely at identifying students who are not in the proper program, educating parents on the consequences of participating in Access Points and keeping students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms as much as possible.  

Stiff new sanctions

Corcoran’s order submits the district to strict oversight, and Corcoran said the DOE will be sending staff to monitor the district’s ESE programs.

“Ultimately, the ability to prove the district is appropriately serving students with special needs is in your hands and my staff will be present to see first hand,” he wrote.

Also, in order to receive Title II and IDEA funding, the district has to implement a laundry list of corrective actions:

  • Develop a plan for 20 hours of professional development for targeted staff and administrators on providing support for students with cognitive disabilities in regular classrooms.
  • Participate in two years of oversight by the DOE, to include classroom observations, parent and teacher interviews and monthly “targeted technical assistance and desktop monitoring” by the state.
  • Submit data to the DOE each quarter on the district’s alternative standards program, including how many students are enrolled and what support they are receiving.
  • Develop training programs for parents so they understand the risks and consequences of participating in the alternative program. (Students graduating from Access Points are not eligible for college or military.) The district must create a new parent training program and report monthly to the DOE how many parents are participating and what the outcomes are.
  • For the next three years the district must submit to the DOE its policies and procedures on training parents of students with severe disabilities, ESE professional development, details on

“Florida’s school districts should have long since moved on from forcing families of students with special needs to take their claims to court and choosing to pay off a student in a stubborn effort to avoid simply serving the student appropriately,” Corcoran wrote. “Unfortunately, Sarasota County School District’s public actions suggest that this archaic mentality still has a foothold amongst the district leadership.”  

Lack of concern

Board members Brown, Jane Goodwin and the recently retired Caroline Zucker formed a majority that was highly skeptical of the allegations being brought against the district.

The group, along with former board member Eric Robinson, voted to appeal the judge’s order to provide DJ with six years of compensatory education last year. When a judge ruled that the district hadn’t been providing the ordered services as the appeals process unfolded, Robinson made a motion to drop the appeal that was voted down by Goodwin, Zucker and Brown.

The three longest serving members of the board questioned the motives of advocates Sue Memminger and Susan Magers, often implying that the two were simply trying to get money from the district.

Last week Brown said she did not believe there were additional students who had been wrongly placed, but she also said she had not read the evidence or proposed final order where the details of that allegation are laid out. 

Corcoran singled out statements made by Brown to the media and on Facebook regarding the case, where she said DJ’s case was an isolated incident and questioned what school would want him with all the “baggage” he brings by having special education advocates assist in getting services.

Brown did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday morning, and Goodwin said she had not yet had a chance to read the order but would comment after the district’s 10 a.m. audit committee meeting. 

Former board member Robinson said Wednesday morning that the entire debacle had disgusted him, and he wants administrators to be held accountable. 

“The majority of the board was trying to cover everything up, just being cheerleaders,” Robinson said.  “We had staff members that lied and covered things up and nothing happened to them.”