An outspoken parent at a Baton Rouge arts-themed elementary school filed a complaint in early November about how public schools are accommodating the needs of children with disabilities, asking the U.S. Department of Education to scrutinize whether the East Baton Rouge Parish system is complying with a 42-year-old anti-discrimination law.
In the complaint with the education department’s Office of Civil Rights, John Rice accused the Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts, or BRCVPA, of repeatedly denying services his child is legally entitled to, particularly taking exams in a “small group” setting instead of the regular classroom. Rice said he’s not the only parent with similar problems, and BRCVPA is by no means the only school with such issues.
“There are parents who have it a lot worse than I do, but they say nothing because they are worried about retaliation, about losing the accommodations they have now,” Rice said.
In response to criticism from Rice and other parents, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system in September launched an examination of how well its 80-plus schools adhere to Section 504, the provision of the 1973 federal law that requires schools to provide special services to children with disabilities. These disabilities can range from dyslexia to diabetes. More than half of Baton Rouge students with a disability have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
School officials say they are already making changes. They’ve transferred the 504 Program, as it’s known, to the department that oversees special education and increased training of key staff at each school, while also training teachers about how to comply with the law. Special education officials also recently began visiting schools to make sure that student improvement plans are current, that parents have signed them, and that student work shows they are making sufficient progress. Every school in the system is being scheduled for one of these monitoring visits and the visits will recur annually, officials say.
But Rice said he doesn’t think the school system has done enough and filed a 63-page complaint with the federal education department on Nov. 4.
In August, the civil rights office agreed to take up another Section 504 complaint about a student in a Baton Rouge high school.
Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for the school system, would say little about the high school case the education department is investigating, citing state and federal privacy laws governing student records.
Rutledge said the Office of Civil Rights has asked for a range of information in that case, which the school system is providing. He estimated that 90 percent of OCR complaints go no further than the initial probe, saying the agency typically determines nothing illegal occurred.
Rice provided The Advocate with a copy of his complaint with the condition that his child not be identified. He said the agency sent him written confirmation on Nov. 12 that it’s examining his complaint to see if it merits further investigation.
“It appears as though the game the school and the East Baton Rouge Parish school system are playing is to wear you down,” Rice wrote in the complaint. “We are worn down and requesting your help.”
Rice’s child falls with the ADHD category, as do most of the 504 children at Baton Rouge Center, making up 3 percent of the school’s enrollment. More specifically the child suffers from attention-deficit disorder, which manifests in difficulty remembering things, organization and processing information.
At the start of each school year, Rice said the A-rated magnet school has suspended services for his child, forcing him to prove anew that the child needs help. He accused BRCVPA of making things worse by intentionally not keeping records that his child was receiving required instructional help.
In his complaint, Rice said he recently learned that Candice Hartley, BRCVPA’s new principal, directed teachers at her first faculty meeting in August to change their classroom practices. Specifically, he said, Hartley told teachers to quit providing children what’s known as “small group testing,” a common accommodation provided to ADD and ADHD children.
A teacher at the school, who has asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, has confirmed parts of Rice’s story.
This teacher said Hartley, just two months after taking over BRCVPA, announced on Aug. 4 that students would no longer be pulled out of class to take tests and quizzes, and instead “you can just have them sit in the corner and (have them) put on headphones.” The teacher speculated this change would have saved the school money, as an employee wouldn’t be needed to supervise a separate room of students taking a test.
In his complaint, Rice wrote that when his child is pulled out and tested outside of class, the child’s grades improve; they drop when that doesn’t happen. Rice said life for an ADD child in a crowded classroom can be like having 20 radio stations all blaring at once.
Small group testing ceased and parents, including Rice, began to complain. It was not until Rice took his complaints all the way to Superintendent Warren Drake that small group testing was restored effective Sept. 11, according to emails provided by Rice.
In an email responding to questions from The Advocate, Hartley did not discuss what she said Aug. 4, but she defended the help her school gives to students with disabilities.
“District audits have found BRCVPA in compliance with all state and federal regulations regarding 504 and (special education) services,” Hartley said.
Adonica Duggan, a spokeswoman for the school system, said school officials were not previously aware of concerns about the Aug. 4 BRCVPA faculty meeting, but said they “will look into the details of what took place.”
The Section 504 federal law covers disabilities not covered under a better-known federal law, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
A federal survey in 2012 found that about 3.7 percent of public schoolchildren in Louisiana receive 504 services compared with about 12 percent who receive help via special education.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system reports that it has 2,075 students currently with 504 plans, about 5 percent of all students. Since August 2013, 132 complaints involving 504 plans have been lodged by Baton Rouge parents; the school system reports that all have been resolved.