The story is from Caddo Parish, Louisiana, which now has a 15-20% retention rate in 4th grade and a 25-30% retention rate in 8th grade due to a policy that requires students to pass reading and math tests in those grades before they can be promoted. In poor schools, the percentages range from 40-50% of students failing every year.
With pressure building to make the annual testing targets, students are melting down and schools are referring 3,500 students a year to juvenile court, with 80% of those charges originating at schools. Caddo Parish only enrolls 44,000 students.
John Gianforte, a licensed counselor who works with children, . . . .became involved with the school system after volunteering to provide free mental-health screenings for children sent to juvenile court. In the past three years, Gianforte said, 80 percent of the 3,500 students a year referred to the court were sent because of charges that started at a school.
He discovered that numerous children referred to the court were diagnosed with disabilities that qualified them for special education services or that they were supposed to be receiving services. As a counseling provider, he started attending the students' Individual Education Plan conferences.
"I had this vision the school system would welcome me with open arms," Gianforte said, laughing ruefully.
Instead, he said he encountered school employees who shoved prewritten behavior or counseling plans at him and expected him to sign off on them. When he asked for information to show the school system was providing required services, "I was told I was not entitled to have the data.
"I found in many instances there was no data in support of the IEP," Gianforte said.
He's seen interagency agreements between his counseling practice and the school system suspended, then reinstated, because he fought for his clients. His counselors have been told they couldn't visit school campuses, even though they were providing counseling at lunch, recess or other times students were in class.
Gianforte said he believes the school system is failing children with emotional and behavioral problems.
"What (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) says is that it's incumbent on the school system to identify children who are having difficulty," Gianforte said. "At least with respect to this class of individuals, (it) is not working.
The school system is facing a chorus of complaints from all directions about how it handles students with emotional and behavioral disturbances as well as other special education needs.
A group of parents alleges the school system is shipping emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children to alternative schools or putting them off campus instead of providing services. The state Education Department is investigating the complaint, which is similar to complaints filed against the Jefferson and East Baton Rouge Parish school systems.
At the same time, Jackie Lansdale, president of the Caddo Federation of Teachers and Support Personnel, says the school system is failing to appropriately place students who pose a threat to themselves and others.
Lansdale said her office is flooded with calls from teachers who are concerned about their safety because some special education students are not put in the appropriate environment for their disability. Lansdale said there are several students in the system who have not been placed in an atmosphere where they can receive special services.
As a result, she said, students who have emotional disorders are acting out in the classroom, making it potentially dangerous for the student, their peers and teachers.
Lansdale told the Caddo Parish School Board it needed to reconsider how they determine the placement of special education students in the system. During the board's March 5 meeting, she said the school system was misinterpreting laws that regulate the class placement of special education students.
Lansdale told The Times she'd like the School Board to form a special committee to ensure every child in the parish is placed in an environment that would be conducive to their learning and safe for everyone.
"This is about environment and placement," Lansdale said. "We have teachers, school employees, administrators and students who are in danger because there are students in our school who present a danger to themselves and others. Parents want their kids to be in a safe environment, but there has to be some middle ground where our teachers can be safe too."
Another part of the problem is that students who have disabilities like dyslexia are causing bodily harm to teachers. When this happens, the teacher can request to have the student removed or placed in another school but Lansdale said these requests are going unfulfilled.
Louisiana statues say when a teacher is abused by a student, the student has to be suspended and removed from school grounds. The student cannot be considered for readmission to the school until all hearings and appeals associated with the alleged violations have been exhausted and the student cannot return to the same school where the employee is located unless it is the only place where the student can receive the services.
Lansdale says the board isn't acting on this because they've misinterpreted the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the laws that govern how school systems treat special education students.
There is nothing that prohibits the Louisiana statues law from being enforced, Lansdale said during the March 5 meeting.
Federal IDEA laws allow administrators to examine cases individually and if there is not a direct linkage between the student's exceptionality and the disciplinary infraction the student must stand accountable just like any other student.
"There is an interpretation that just because you have a special need your rights transcend everyone else's, and that's not what we ought to be communicating to our students," Lansdale said March 5. "Every time we raise our voice, we are told that nothing can be done. "» We are not satisfied with this answer."