Family advocate says state education department still not fulfilling needs of disabled students after critical audit


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A state audit found more than a dozen deficiencies when it comes to educating Virginia students with disabilities. Not enough transparency, failure to resolve credible complaints, and lack of support for students for life after school were just a few of the issues.

That report from the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission was released in mid-December. Two months later, an advocate for special needs students and their families says the situation has not improved.

“If anything, I think it’s getting worse,” said Cheryl Poe, founder of Advocating 4 Kids. She has supported students with disabilities and their families for decades. She says the Virginia Department of Education needs to hold school divisions accountable when they are out of compliance.

“The VDOE just drops it back in the lap of the school division, and says ‘You have to fix this, you were found in non-compliance.'”

The audit report called on VDOE to improve teacher training, be more transparent, and better address complaints when families of special ed students speak out.

“However you have a dispute resolution office that does nothing to ensure that that’s happening,” Poe said.

Superintendent James Lane said the department is committed to addressing the shortcomings found in the audit — calling special education services a core priority. In a letter to JLARC, Lane pointed to his department’s highest-ranking for special education from the federal department of education for the seventh straight year.

The VDOE plan for a new approach for improving outcomes for students with disabilities that will include the following:

⦁ Expanded criteria for the investigation of complaints, and a new procedure for confirming implementation of required corrective actions
⦁ Additional transparency for families and students in the dispute resolution process
⦁ Additional technical assistance and training for school division staff, including in the development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students and family engagement
⦁ Enhanced special education-related requirements for educator preparation programs
⦁ Expanded analysis and collection of data to inform program practices and policy development

Poe says the audit findings and recommendations are nothing more than VDOE’s obligations under existing federal law.

“The whole thing is disgusting. There’s nothing in here that is different than what they agreed to do when they accept federal money,” Poe said.

Lane is also strongly encouraging the General Assembly to dedicate more funding for special education.

The audit points to the 30-point gap in graduation rates when you compare students with and without disabilities. Another shortcoming: inadequate transition plans to prepare students with different levels of disabilities for life after high school.

“Maybe they need to go into a place where they get a welding certificate, so when they leave school … they can have a job and make money,” Poe said.

The state says it will have a pilot program of special education improvements to run in select school divisions in the commonwealth but has yet to announce which divisions will be included.

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