Through the cracks

LINDEN HILLS — The Minnesota Department of Education in May directed Minneapolis Public Schools to revise its rules for identifying students in need of special education services in response to a complaint filed by a former Lake Harriet Community School parent.

The parent, Jennifer Russell, said she made several verbal requests to have her daughter evaluated for special education services, including at least once while the girl was enrolled at Lake Harriet and again in August 2011, the month before the start of her ninth-grade year at Washburn High School. An education department investigation found that the district failed to either evaluate the student or provide written notice to Russell that it wouldn’t conduct an evaluation.

Like all public school districts, Minneapolis keeps a Total Special Education Systems (TSES) manual that outlines its special education policies. According to the manual, the district was obligated to respond only to written requests from parents for special education services.

But parents aren’t required to put such requests in writing, and the education department investigation found the district TSES manual violated state statute. In a May 22, 2012 letter addressed to both Russell and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, the education department gave the district 30 days to draft a new version of its so-called “Child Find” procedures and submit it for approval.

The district denies Russell’s claims, but is complying with the order.

That’s far from the end of the story for Russell and her daughter, who is now 15 years old. (Russell asked that the girl not be identified by name.) Russell said she began seeking help from the district when her daughter was in the seventh grade, but the district never developed an effective education plan.

“She definitely dropped through the cracks,” said Russell, who has hired an attorney and is suing the district.

“As a mom, I believed she’s a slow learner and she’ll be fine,” she said. “But when she got to middle school, it was apparent there was something wrong, and she wasn’t fine, because it really started affecting her self-esteem. Her anxiety increased.”

In school, she appeared disorganized and struggled to keep track of assignments. Her grades suffered, too, most seriously in math. Noticing her daughter struggled to grasp even basic math concepts, Russell hired a math tutor.

Despite those issues, Russell described her daughter as “bright” and “articulate.”

“I think to make up for her lack of skills in math, her language skills are really strong,” she said. “… I think the impression that I got and that she got is her teachers just thought she wasn’t trying: Here’s the smart girl, but she doesn’t care.”

In December 2010, partway through the girl’s eighth-grade year at Lake Harriet, Russell had her evaluated at Children’s Hospital. The doctor found evidence to diagnose several conditions, including dyscalculia, a math learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD — and Russell said both she and her daughter left the hospital feeling “relieved” to finally have some answers.

Back at school, they didn’t get the response they were hoping for.

The district was unable to address its interactions with Russell and her daughter directly; Russell did not grant them full permission to discuss the case with a reporter, citing a distrust of the district. But the May 22 department of education letter described what happened next: The district ruled the girl did not meet its criteria for a learning disability.

Instead of beginning special education services, district officials met with Russell to develop list of classroom accommodations for the girl, known as a 504 plan. The district also agreed to pay for a math tutor.

Russell described the 504 plan as “completely unsuccessful.” The accommodations were largely student-driven, but a girl already experiencing serious anxiety in the classroom was reluctant to speak up for help.

“At that point she was feeling so bad she just went in and did her time,” Russell recalled. “… She was embarrassed to admit that she didn’t understand things or that she lost things or she didn’t grasp concepts, because it seemed like everybody else around her could.”

When she made additional requests to begin special education services, the district’s response was to continue with the 504 plan, according to the education department letter.

The situation worsened at Washburn for Russell’s daughter, and Russell said she started to “give up” on her classes. The girl briefly transferred schools, but ultimately the emotional fallout of the classroom issues interrupted her schooling.

Jody Manning, the parent training and information center coordinator at PACER Center, who reviewed the education department letter, said the trajectory Russell’s daughter followed was familiar.

“I think after time, if a student is experiencing failure after failure, it will have a definitely impact on their self-esteem and self-worth,” Manning said, adding that, if she were the parent, she would wonder if an earlier intervention by the district could have prevented some of issues that arose later.

Manning said she was “surprised” to learn the district’s TSES manual didn’t comply with state law. She said it was not unusual for such requests to be made verbally or for the district to respond verbally — but the lesson, she added, was to always get everything in writing.

Russell said that’s usually how she would operate. But when it came to her daughter, she met with district and school officials face-to-face “because I was so sincere in wanting help,” she said.

District spokesman Rachel Hicks wrote in an email that the district met a June deadline to provide the education department a draft of its revised TSES manual. The initial draft was rejected, and a subsequent draft was sent to the department Aug. 8. About three weeks later, the district was still awaiting its response, Hicks wrote.

Russell, a single mother of two, whose older son starts college this fall, said taking legal action against the district was both time-consuming and exhausting. But, after speaking with other parents about similar experiences, she has become an advocate, she said.

“I am doing it now because I feel really strongly this is happening to too many kids,” she said. “… It’s incredibly stressful, and it has a profound impact that is not positive.” 

After enrolling her daughter at Southwest High School and finally beginning the process that could have gotten her the special education services Russell was demanding, she and her daughter instead decided to enroll her in a St. Paul charter school.

“I had to walk away,” Russell said.