Venessa Fawley knew her daughter’s transition in September from preschool to full-day kindergarten at a different school would be challenging. A change in routine is especially difficult for kids with autism.

But what she didn’t expect was that Chicago Public Schools would revoke her six-year-old’s special education services for the new school year. Or that CPS would deny altogether that her child was even autistic.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare,” said Fawley, who lives in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. “They literally make you question yourself as a parent and make you question what is wrong with your child.”

Since the fall, families across Chicago have been experiencing similar problems and roadblocks following a new CPS policy that enforces a more stringent approach to identifying, evaluating and educating students with disabilities.

Officials defend their slow-walking in part as an attempt to address an overdiagnosis of African-American and Hispanic male students with disabilities. But that assertion does not square with district and state data examined by the Better Government Association.

The BGA analysis shows that nearly one in four CPS students receiving expensive and increasingly difficult to obtain individualized special education services is white even though white students comprise just 10 percent of the overall student body.

Facing a yawning deficit and special education spending this year of more than $923 million, or more than 15 percent of the district’s entire budget, CPS has enacted a number of new procedures and bureaucratic layers to the process for, according to the district, more accountability.

But critics, including dozens of teachers, administrators, parents and disability rights advocates, say the district’s changes to beef up requirements have led to inappropriate delays and reduced services for students who are among the most vulnerable children in the city.

“It’s delay and deny, delay and deny, delay and deny,” said Matt Cohen, an attorney who specializes in disability law and represents families contesting CPS. “It’s all about saving overall money and not doing what each child actually needs.”

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Special education has been a growing issue throughout the school year for CPS.

At the start of the year, CPS dropped special transportation services for some kids with disabilities, reinstating them after parents and activists complained. The administration also cut budgets and began mixing funds set aside for special education with general education funds, asking principals to make decisions on spending choices. Finally, CPS started requiring teachers and administrators to fill out more paperwork, collect more data and add more time to the already lengthy process of issuing an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for students with disabilities.

The issue came to a head publicly last month when parents, teachers and activists protested at the monthly Chicago Board of Education meeting, and, later, outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s fifth floor office at City Hall. The issue has also become a point of contention between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS. 

Protesters, teachers and advocates gather outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting in December.  | Photo by Katie Drews
Protesters, teachers and advocates gather outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting in December.  |  Katie Drews

During the board meeting, district officials defended their decisions during a lengthy presentation, pointing instead to their own concerns involving over-identification and racial bias.

They showed a racial breakdown of students with IEPs, saying African-American and Hispanic males were more likely to be identified for special ed compared to their white peers.

“There are real serious consequences to misdiagnosis in terms of the lives of these children, and race clearly is something we have to look [at] based on …  the raw numbers,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said during the public meeting.

In a CPS document, officials say African-American and Hispanic males make up 43 percent of the student body but they make up 59 percent of “all students with disabilities.”

But district-wide data of students who receive IEPs, which is at the heart of the issue, show minorities’ aren’t overrepresented.

A BGA analysis of CPS records and data obtained from the Illinois State Board of Education show that while African-American and Hispanic males do make up 43 percent of the student body they account for only 38 percent of students with IEPs.

The numbers also show that although white males make up only 5 percent of the student body, they account for 15 percent of those who receive the individualized special education services, according to a breakdown of racial and gender numbers from last school year, the most recent available. White females represent 5 percent of total student enrollment and 8 percent of students with IEPs.

What’s more, ISBE monitors racial disproportionality in special ed at school districts across the state and the agency has not found any issues with CPS in recent years, ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.

“All of that is smoke and mirrors,” said Terri Smith-Roback, a CPS parent and special ed advocate, on CPS’ claim. “There’s no data to back that up, and God forbid you try to get an IEP without data.” 

District officials also suggested there was a problem with the increasing percentage of special ed students, despite declining overall enrollment.

Data presented at the board meeting showed that this school year there are 52,093 students with IEPs — or 13.7 percent of total enrollment — compared to 52,595 last year, which was 13.4 percent of total enrollment at the time. In 2012, it was 12.3 percent, according to the district.

Despite the small percentage increase, the overall number of students with IEPs is slightly down and the share of CPS students with IEPs is lower than the state average. The state average has been “steady” at about 14 percent since 2012, Matthews said.

Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst with the Chicago-based disability rights group Access Living, said urban school districts across the nation, especially in Illinois, are expected to have a higher than average percentage of special ed students because there’s a link between poverty and disability rates.

“It’s certainly hard to make an argument for over-identification when you have 80 percent poverty and you’re right at the state average,” Estvan said.

Claypool denied a request for an interview through a spokesman, who also didn’t answer specific questions about the district’s data analysis.

Instead, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner released an emailed statement stating that the “new policy for special education” requires schools to fund special ed before other programs so “that all individual plans for special education students are met, helping their academic achievement improve alongside their classmates.”

During the board meeting in December, district officials also denied cutting special ed costs, saying the 4 percent that was withheld from each school is being set aside for special ed service requests that may come up throughout the rest of the year.

As part of the new approach, CPS has been pushing for more data collection before the official referral process for special education begins. If a student is suspected of having a learning disability, for example, teachers have been instructed to test “interventions” to see if the child improves and collect data for 10 weeks before proceeding to an evaluation, according to documents and interviews.

Typically, the district has 60 school days to determine if a student is eligible for special ed starting from the day the parent agrees to an evaluation. But if the data hasn’t been collected within the 60 days, case managers are supposed to ask parents for a 40-day extension, according to a CPS procedural manual released last fall.

That could leave students struggling in class for several months deep in the school year before getting the help they need, said Sarah Chambers, a teacher and member of Chicago Teachers’ Union’s special education task force.

“If a teacher has noticed a kid is struggling … they need weeks just to prove the kid needs to be evaluated,” Chambers said.

Dorsey Smith, of Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, said she went through a lengthy battle to get her son evaluated. She noticed he was transposing letters and numbers and suspected he might have dyslexia in 2013, but school staff told her they didn’t think an evaluation was warranted.

Smith said she tried moving her son from Harold Washington Elementary School to a private school and then a charter school. Each time she was denied an evaluation. Along the way, she was repeatedly told that data needed to be collected.

“Everywhere I turned I got a no,” Smith said. “They say that I’m labeling him, that I’m trying to make a problem where there is none, that I’m trying to work the system. All I ask is for an evaluation.”

It wasn’t until she got help from an advocate, Smith-Roback, that CPS finally agreed to perform an evaluation on Smith’s son, she said. Finally, just last month, her son, now in 8th grade, got an IEP.  

Another common problem families are facing is that it’s harder to get an aide if a child needs one at any point in the day. According to the CPS policy from the fall, employees were asked to fill out extensive paperwork that has to be approved by a principal. Though critics acknowledge CPS has recently tweaked that policy, they say there’s still too much bureaucracy in the process.

If data show a child with an aide had been doing well, then CPS could say the aide is no longer needed — which is similar to what happened to Venessa Fawley’s daughter. 

Venessa Fawley
Venessa Fawley | Photo by Katie Drews

For three years Fawley said her daughter had an IEP, a legally binding document that spells out goals and services for the child in need. When the girl was re-evaluated before starting kindergarten at Burley Elementary School, the district said she was doing fine and didn’t need any special education services any more. They also concluded her daughter did not have autism.

Fawley was floored. The decision went against the recommendations she received from multiple private doctors, she said.

She filed a complaint and ended up with what’s known as a 504 plan, which is less detailed than an IEP.

Fawley also requested another evaluation, which just concluded in December. This time around, the district determined her daughter was indeed autistic, Fawley said. Officials, however, said she was only eligible for the less detailed plan.

Fawley said she doesn’t think that setup is working and is contesting the CPS decision. Since school started, her daughter’s meltdowns have intensified, she said. The girl, whose name has been withheld at the request of her mother, would scream for hours. She frequently isolates herself. She’s scratched her skin until she bled. She doesn’t want to leave the house — not even for her favorite activity, Irish dance.

“I’m not trying to get something from the system that my kid doesn’t need,” Fawley said. “I want her to have everything she can so she can keep thriving. Not to fail and then do it at all over again.”