In a far-reaching decision, a state complaints officer with the Colorado Department of Education has found “widespread” concerns throughout Denver Public Schools that it systematically violated the special education rights of Black male students enrolled in the district’s centers for students with emotional disabilities.
The investigation by the state education department involved 99 students who were served in the specialized centers at district schools or an outside school contracted with the district between the spring of 2021 and 2022. The district operates separate classrooms for students with emotional disabilities, called affective needs centers, at 33 Denver schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
More than a third of the centers’ students are Black boys, while 14 percent of the district’s enrollment is comprised of Black students, both male and female.
“Certainly, that's a disproportionate number of students,” said Pam Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver, which advocates for students with disabilities and filed the state complaint against the district last spring.
The organization also filed a federal civil rights complaint last year alleging a pattern of discrimination against Black male students. The federal investigation is pending. The complaint asks for the Office of Civil Rights to order DPS to abolish the affective needs centers and reimagine how Black students with disabilities are served.
The findings were not a complete surprise “but these findings definitely are eye-opening in all that they discovered and uncovered …that we have systemic inequities against our students with this unique need in the district,” said Julie Rottier-Lukens, executive director of DPS’s Office of Exceptional Student Services.
“I'm hoping that with these findings and the work that we are hoping to do across the needs of all students with disabilities, we can make some big systemic improvements.”
At issue is how the district carried out their practice of placing students with known or suspected emotional disabilities in separate classrooms. Advocates charged that Black male students are being disproportionately placed in such classrooms – at rates as high as four and a half times other students – because of the narrow use of biased tests that cause them to be identified with serious emotional disabilities.
Advocacy Denver calls such placements “one of the most glaring examples of institutionalized racism within Denver Public Schools.” For years, Black males have been overidentified as having a serious emotional disability and also tend to be under identified for programs designed for children diagnosed with autism, she said.
“Certainly, there are kids with serious emotional disabilities. But sometimes we can't help but wonder if there isn't that bias in terms of making assumptions about where a behavior comes from … There is that racism where, if the child is Black, then somehow they believe that the behavior is bigger or scarier.”
The district had a plan for dismantling the centers – called Project DISRUPT — but it was dismantled with new leadership in certain DPS departments. Bisceglia said the complaints were filed after years of trying to work with the district through individual schools and administrative remedies.
“Enough was enough,” said Bisceglia, who said she has seen children languish in affective needs centers from kindergarten through middle school.
DPS’s Rottier-Lukens said one of the reasons Project DISRUPT was temporarily disbanded was the recognition that there are multiple areas where students of color aren’t receiving equal services and officials began examining those issues internally.
“We have concerns of disproportionality across many different areas, not just affective needs programming,” she said. One example is the underrepresentation of children of color in the gifted and talented program. Rottier-Lukens said the remedies the district will undertake align with DPS’s new strategic roadmap that prioritizes “the examination and dismantling of systems of oppression.”
Rottier-Lukens said the affective needs centers do allow staff to meet the needs of students who require a more restrictive setting.
“While we still have the obligation to provide that continuum of services, we're really trying to also shift to more inclusive practices.”
During the pandemic, she said district teams began reviewing where culture and bias could have been playing a role in assessing students. For example, some students were experiencing a significant amount of trauma at home that resulted in certain behaviors at school that could have increased the “perception that students needed a higher level of programming when really they were responding to a trauma in their life.”
The state complaints officer found five systemic violations
It said the district systematically failed to conduct comprehensive needs evaluations or make appropriate determinations on students’ eligibility for services under federal education law.
In one case of a suspected disability, despite low scores on academic testing, the district focused on a student’s behavioral concerns and didn’t assess the student’s cognitive abilities. Half the evaluations investigated didn’t use a variety of sources and information to make an assessment, as required by law. The complaint officer said the district also didn’t ensure that assessments were selected and administered “so as not to be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Act also requires students to be educated in their “least restrictive environment,” which it says the district failed to do. That means, for example, considering supplementary aids and services that would make it possible to educate students in regular classes. The district also failed to ensure that students could participate in nonacademic and extracurricular activities to the greatest extent possible, the complaint reads.
It found the district didn’t issue prior written notice to parents of changes in a child’s placement, didn’t ensure that teachers at two center programs had proper licenses and certification, and systematically failed to develop, review and revise a student’s individualized education plan that reflects students’ needs.
The complaint officer ordered a number of corrective actions, including training for all of the district’ special education leadership, leaders at schools with affective needs programs, and teacher, social workers and school psychologists who work in the programs. It names specific timelines for corrective action, including compensatory services for some students.
Denver Public Schools gives individual schools considerable autonomy, especially the charter and innovation schools where some of the centers are located. Typically, schools can refuse district training for their staff.
“With the decision they're going to be required to participate in training,” Bisceglia said. “When it comes to public law, this is where we don’t allow autonomy…..We need to make sure we’re meeting the range of needs presented by students with disabilities.”
Rottier-Lukens said DPS is committed to getting special education staff the training and support they need.
DPS, like school districts across the nation, has struggled to hire special education staff. She’s hopeful recently negotiated wage and salary increases will help, as well as a new committee aimed at setting standards around workload and caseloads. More resources could facilitate ongoing support and coaching for special education staff, which would help the district “thoughtfully plan for long-term systemic change.”
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