Denver Public Schools systematically violated the rights of Black boys with disabilities who attend specialized programs, state education officials found in a wide-ranging investigation.
The Colorado Department of Education found that the state’s largest school district sent Black boys to the specialized programs without thoroughly evaluating them and then failed to properly monitor their progress once they were there, among other violations.
The boys attend “affective needs centers,” which are separate classrooms designed to serve students with emotional disabilities. The district’s own data shows Black boys have been 4½ times as likely as other students to be placed in the centers, which the district has said have high staff turnover, subpar supplies, and make students feel “othered.”
The district had previously called its affective needs centers “one of our most glaring examples of institutional racism.” But a plan to abolish the classrooms was scrapped because district leaders decided they couldn’t appropriately serve students without them. The pre-pandemic graduation rate for Black students in the centers was 38%, district documents say.
Those statistics, along with her experience advocating for families, prompted Pam Bisceglia to file a pair of complaints with the federal Office for Civil Rights and the Colorado Department of Education on behalf of Black male students.
“We see that if a student is white, the school’s response doesn’t tend to be the same as when a student is Black,” said Bisceglia, who is the executive director of Advocacy Denver.
“There are some schools where they fast track — they railroad kids into special education. We see where, for whatever reason, that principal or the culture of that school is that Black males seem bigger and more dangerous than other students.”
A long list of violations
The federal complaint is still pending, but a state complaints officer found a long list of violations that occurred between March 2021 and March 2022.
They include that the district:
- Failed to ensure Black male students in affective needs centers were educated “to the maximum extent possible” with nondisabled peers and could participate in extracurricular activities. In one example cited in the decision, staff wrote that a student was “doing great in general education” but declined to increase the time he was spending in the classroom with nondisabled peers.
- Failed to conduct comprehensive evaluations of Black male students’ disabilities or to consider information from parents in some evaluations. For example, one student’s evaluation was based on test scores from three years earlier.
- Failed to write goals in students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, that would allow them to make progress in the general education curriculum. Of the 50 IEPs the state reviewed, nearly half of them — 21 in total — did not have such goals.
- Failed to consistently monitor and report students’ progress on IEP goals and address it when students didn’t make progress. For example, one student had just a single progress report for the 2021-22 school year — and it was blank.
- Failed to ensure that all affective needs programs had sufficient teachers with the proper certifications and licenses. A program for students with severe needs had to transition to virtual learning for several months last year because of a lack of teachers.
Julie Rottier-Lukens, the executive director of exceptional student services, said that while Denver Public Schools had concerns about what was happening in its affective needs centers, the state decision was “eye-opening” in showing the scope of the problem.
Rottier-Lukens said the district promises to make changes.
“We are very committed to making sure we aren’t just checking the boxes of the findings and remedies, but really digging beyond to address the systems that need to change,” she said.
Hoping for a difference
The state complaints officer found that Denver Public Schools has the proper procedures written down on paper but that district staff are not following them. The decision orders special education staff — from managers to teachers to school psychologists — to attend training on conducting comprehensive special education evaluations, developing and reviewing IEPs, determining which programs students should attend, and more.
The training will be provided by the Colorado Department of Education. Denver Public Schools staff must complete the training by Jan. 31. District leaders must also submit a corrective action plan to the state by Oct. 10, and district staff must read and understand it by Nov. 18.
Rottier-Lukens said the district is still developing its corrective action plan. Bisceglia said she hopes it includes training for non-special education staff, as well — including the teachers and principals who disproportionately refer Black boys to affective needs centers.
There have been fewer referrals throughout the pandemic, Rottier-Lukens said, as teachers have been cautious about labeling students with emotional disabilities given the trauma many have experienced. But now that students are back in person, she said the district needs to make sure affective needs centers don’t become a “default” for students with challenging behaviors.
All district staff, Rottier-Lukens said, should “think about what additional resources can we provide our schools and providers so they can have what they need to support kids in their neighborhood or choice school, as opposed to presuming there’s some sort of magic bullet or magic wand that exists within the affective needs programming?”
Bisceglia hopes for the same.
“DPS has admitted that this is an example of institutional racism, and that continues to be true,” she said. “We’re hopeful that both the training provided by [the Colorado Department of Education] and giving leaders in schools the tools, we’ll see some difference.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.