Three years after state officials ordered special education reform at Chicago Public Schools, the department is still rife with trouble, from thousands of families not receiving legally mandated services to dozens of employees resigning as leadership faces toxic workplace allegations.
Families and advocates have long complained that inadequate policies and ineffective management have led to poor educational experiences for the school system’s disabled children, and many aren’t buying that a teachers’ strike or the pandemic are solely to blame for the latest overdue fixes.
Former CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who left her position at the end of June, took over in 2018 around the time the district faced unprecedented demands to correct years of illegal treatment of special education families. Righting those wrongs was one of Jackson’s primary tasks, and on her way out three years later she said not doing so was one of her biggest regrets.
As the nation’s third largest public school district searches for new leadership and enters the next phase of pandemic education, advocates are as angry as ever and looking for systemic changes.
“What’s most sad to me about it is that nothing has changed,” said Terri Smith-Roback, a South Side-based special education parent advocate.
Just 2% of students given remedies
A lengthy state investigation concluded in 2018 that for two years CPS had illegally refused vital services to thousands of kids — special education aides, transportation, summer school and therapy — that can make or break a disabled child’s educational experience.
That systemic denial of services came as then-CEO Forest Claypool, with the help of outside consultants, cut the special education budget to help overcome the district’s financial deficit at the time, a WBEZ investigation revealed.
State officials ordered the district to course correct by setting aside $10 million to help those families recover, and installed a monitor to oversee the special education department.
Officials found 10,515 students were harmed and would be notified that they were automatically eligible for remedies, which could include reimbursement for prior transportation or private services, or free access to new therapy.
In the three years since, only 214 of those students who were wrongly stripped of or denied services — about 2% — have received any compensatory assistance as of early July, according to records obtained by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times. And district officials refuse to say how much money they have spent on the program.
As time has passed, at least 2,900 of those 10,515 kids are no longer at the district and are harder to find, CPS data shows, including more than 1,000 who have graduated, another 1,000 who have transferred to other districts or private schools, 30 who have died and others who have aged out, moved to home schooling, been committed to institutions or the district has lost track of them.
On top of those who were due automatic relief, another 1,500 children were identified as having potentially been harmed, CPS records show. The district planned to tell those families they could set up a meeting to make their case that they had been illegally denied services. As of July, only 16 of those students have received compensatory help and 360 have been deemed ineligible because they couldn’t prove their case.
Some advocates have gone as far as accusing CPS leadership of not wanting the compensatory program to succeed.
“They never admitted they did anything wrong,” said Mary Hughes, a special education advocate who works with the parent group Raise Your Hand. “And if they don’t give this money that was set aside to these kids, they can use it for something else like more administrative staff to just keep this bureaucracy rolling.”
Teacher Natasha Carlsen, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union’s special education committee, said she thinks the problems go beyond money. If the district makes it difficult for families to receive those make-up services and, as a result, few remedies are provided, officials can use that as proof that CPS didn’t really hurt many children, she alleged.
Smith-Roback, who’s a member of the advocate group that state officials mandated CPS to meet with monthly on this issue, said the problems with the compensatory process are “parallel to the reason why they’re in this mess in the first place.
“It’s a delay and deny strategy,” she said. “And the whole reason that they’re in this mess is because they instituted policies … that unnecessarily led to delays and denials in services. They’re doing the exact same thing.”
Advocates celebrated when the school district agreed to automatically provide extra help for some students without their parents having to prove in a meeting that they deserved make-up support. That was particularly important since most of the harmed students came from low-income families whose parents often have trouble navigating the complicated processes in the special education world, and they would have access to services they otherwise couldn’t afford — private tutoring, camps and expensive therapies.
Yet even that program has been difficult to access, families have said. The letters and voicemail messages sent to parents informing them that they are due a remedy are vague and hard to understand, and advocates suspect the district is closing cases when parents don’t respond.
“I think that their approach is, we need to keep this as tight and difficult to access as possible and they have done exactly that,” said Christine Palmieri, who became an advocate after her autistic son was denied an aide in the 2017 school year.
CPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Sun-Times and WBEZ.
Parents, CPS workers rip special education leadership
The district has blamed the remote nature of work during the pandemic for not being able to meet with families who were denied services and determine the best remedies for their needs.
Setting up phone calls and meetings during the pandemic was difficult in some cases, with a significant and documented lack of access to technology and internet for thousands of CPS families. What’s more, in-person meetings were also challenging if not impossible in some cases, as parents struggled with maintaining their children’s education while keeping medically vulnerable kids safe.
But with about 60 employees in CPS’ special education department quitting over the past two years, there are concerns that an unwelcoming work environment has at least played a role in thwarting the rollout — and the district’s current ability to serve special education students.
In late July, a committee of parent advocates wrote a letter to top district leaders calling for the immediate removal or resignation of Stephanie Jones, CPS’ special education chief.
The group pointed to the mass departures of department staff, poor communication and collaboration with families and, critically, the snails-pace rollout of corrective services.
“The impact of the turnover and vacancies in these positions is insurmountable, and has been felt all the way down to the local school [level],” the letter read.
The same week, about 120 school psychologists, social workers and language therapists signed another letter to CPS officials detailing “grave concerns regarding the current leadership” of the district’s special education office, citing “spiteful, obstructive and incompetent behaviors.”
Among the problems listed were intentionally poor retention of skilled workers despite staffing shortages, delays in receiving necessary work materials to evaluate students and a toxic environment in the central office contributing to lower-level managers and employees quitting. Those all were affecting clinicians’ abilities to support students, they said.
“The loss of these highly-skilled, compassionate professionals negates progress that has been made in recent years, leaves our schools and students without critical supports and services, and makes the district increasingly likely to face” formal complaints, the letter read.
The letter cited a May article on The Triibe website about a similar complaint against Jones.
That same month, a department staffer who had recently resigned filed a complaint with district officials laying out a claim of “harassment and retaliation” and explained they were “unable to function at work due to it,” the employee told the Sun-Times in an interview. They described being berated by Jones and given the cold shoulder after pushing back in a conversation.
Smith-Roback said the staff turnover in the department has resulted in new employees not fully grasping the breadth of the problems or the urgency in addressing them.
“They don’t have their head around it,” she said. “We’re dealing with a whole group of people who are not well-educated about what actually happened.”
Jones did not respond to a request for comment. But CPS defended her to the Triibe, saying in a statement “Jones has the highest integrity and is performing her duties with a steadfast commitment to serving CPS families and students with special needs.”
Mom ‘tired’ of fighting for services
Some 86% of the students who automatically qualified for a remedy went to schools with mostly low-income Black or Latino students. The school district has refused to provide information showing which students have gotten remedies.
Celeste O’Connor, whose daughter has a developmental disability, said her experience shows how onerous the process is and how it advantages middle class families like hers.
Her daughter’s individualized education plan — a legal document for students with disabilities that describes the services they’re entitled to — called for a special education teacher and a one-on-one aide in the 2016-2017 school year to help her stay on task and complete assignments.
But her daughter’s school was not given enough money for special education aides or teachers, a common problem at schools districtwide. So her daughter had to share an aide with three other students and was with a special education teacher six hours a week less than she was supposed to be.
“She was kind of thrown into the general education curriculum, without anyone to really walk her through what she needed or give her the support that she needed,” O’Connor said. “She got pulled out of the classroom a lot because there was no one there to give her support.”
Her daughter’s school, Alcott Elementary School in Lincoln Park on the North Side, appealed twice before they finally got approval for more staff. But by then, O’Connor said, months had gone by with her daughter being shortchanged.
In reviewing her case, CPS determined that she was not automatically eligible for extra help and would need to meet with district officials. At the first meeting, district representatives argued her daughter shouldn’t receive compensatory services because they couldn’t prove she didn’t have a dedicated teacher.
But O’Connor found a way around that argument by doing something she and advocates note is a benefit particular to privileged families: She had receipts for a literacy camp that her daughter attended when she wasn’t receiving the proper care at school, and O’Connor was able to get reimbursed for it.
O’Connor said it was a lot of work to get the remedy, but she felt she had to pursue it because she worked with other advocates to make it happen. “I am tired,” she said. “My daughter has 13 specialists, she just had spinal surgery in February, I am trying to work and help other families.”
She said she imagines other parents don’t have the bandwidth to go through all she went through.
Lawmaker: State needs to again hold district accountable
State Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Streamwood) sponsored the legislation that forced CPS to provide families compensatory services. Asked this week about the lack of progress in the program, he said the Illinois State Board of Education needs to hold the district accountable.
CPS officials have told lawmakers that the process of getting the compensation to families was delayed by the 2019 teachers strike and the pandemic, he said.
“The question is: Do I buy it? I am not sure. I am not sure if they are using this as a cover to not really address the real issues,” he said.
Crespo said what really disturbs him is that most of the students who were harmed are Black and Latino, widening existing achievement gaps.
“Unfortunately, this impacts real life, real students. It’s not like building widgets where I can wait a year or two. Every day matters in the education and the care of these kids.”
Kalaveeta Mitchell, the mother of two special education students, received a letter in February 2020 saying one of her two autistic children deserved a remedy, though it did not say which one. From her perspective, both of them suffered during the illegal overhaul of special education.
She recalled angrily walking out of a meeting after district representatives said her son would lose speech and social work services, and he then stagnated for two years without any academic growth. Her daughter also faced behavioral problems during that time.
But since that letter a year and a half ago, nobody at CPS has followed up about a remedy, Mitchell said.
“It was just insane. I never heard anything else after that, like, no meetings, no calls or anything like that. So it’s just in the wind,” she said.
Mitchell accused the district of dragging its feet until her children age out of the district and are harder to reach. Her son is in his junior year of high school.
“The biggest issue that we have in CPS, we have a lot of parents who are uninformed. And then for the group of us who are informed, it is always the pushback,” she said. “And it’s hard, because most of us are struggling to care for our children and pay for the things that they need.”