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Some students with disabilities aren’t receiving adequate care in the SSD, new complaint says

Cornelia Li
Special to NPR
Attorneys from the Education Justice Program and parents allege the Special School District of St. Louis County isn’t doing enough to provide disability students with mental health issues the proper programs and assistance.

The Special School District of St. Louis County is being accused of violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by failing to provide students with disabilities a thorough education and not adequately addressing the issue of their struggles to attend school due to mental health issues.

A complaint was filed on May 17 with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — an administrative arm of the state board of education. The Education Justice Program initiated the complaint on behalf of two students, a 17-year-old from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District and a 17-year-old from the Bridges program in the Special School District.

In addition, the report was filed as a class administrative complaint on behalf of other students with disabilities who may have attendance issues that haven’t been meaningfully addressed by the district. The students are identified as students with disabilities because they have mental health diagnoses that require special education to ensure access to public education, officials said.

“It’s leading to school push-out, and it’s happening right before our eyes,” said Amanda Schneider, managing attorney from the Education Justice Program, which is part of the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

“The goal of filing the complaint is more than just these two students – SSD withdrew a student for not attending. They say ‘attendance is not an observable behavior,’ but we disagree, because there are many rules.”

The Special School District declined to respond to specific allegations made in the complaint because it’s still pending. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has 60 days from the filing of the child complaint to investigate and resolve the matter.

Jennifer Henry, director of communications for SSD, said in an emailed statement that the district is committed to providing a learning environment that is “safe, nurturing, and inclusive” for all students and staff. “... As a student-focused school district, where the student always comes first, we recognize each student’s unique needs are important,” Henry said.

Attorneys from the Education Justice Program said that they believe there’s a systemic issue within the district and that it should be doing more when students with disabilities miss school.

Schneider said the special district is required by state and federal law to follow through with an Individualized Education Program. The complaint highlights the Missouri State Plan for Special Education, stating that it mirrors the law in spelling out the obligations of an IEP team to address when a behavior impedes a student’s learning or that of others.

“They have an IEP, where they write goals for the students,” Schneider said. “For certain behaviors like aggression or lack of attendance, you have to look at that behavior and figure out why that behavior is happening. We see SSD and a lot of school districts who don’t check, and this is unacceptable.”

The problem is, the district places the responsibility of getting kids to and from school solely on the parents, Schneider said.

“Often the narrative is that students and parents are viewing school as ‘optional,’ [but] we believe that the IDEA requires school districts (and DESE) to take more specific action steps in response to the mental health crises that students endure.”

A parent's perspective

The student who attends McCluer High School is referred to in the complaint as S.M., and his parent — who has requested to remain anonymous to protect the family’s privacy — said they’ve grown weary of jumping through hoops and running into roadblocks while trying to get assistance from the school district.

S.M. has been diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, social anxiety disorder and insomnia. He participates in a partial-day computer-based program supervised by a district teacher and is currently participating in intermittent medical homebound services provided by the special district, too, though he still attends McCluer High School when he is mentally capable, records show.

Beginning in December 2020, S.M.’s parent said he became the victim of several bullying incidents. Some of the bullying occurred at school, on the school bus and in their neighborhood.

“I couldn’t get the school itself to contact me,” his parent said. “The incidents were never really addressed or investigated, and that left me feeling very concerned for my son’s safety.”

By February 2021, S.M.’s parent and the district agreed to place him in the Mark Twain Restoration and Wellness Center for the second half of his freshman year. When the parent sought to have him return to the restoration center for his sophomore year, they were denied. The special school district instead sent him back to McClure.

“We had IEP meetings asking for different placement options, and one of the options was to send him to the innovative school,” said S.M.’s parent. “I have attempted all avenues to get him out of going to McClure High School. I didn’t feel safe with my child being there.”

The Wellness Center is set up specifically for kids with behavioral issues, and it was a great fit for S.M. as he began improving in a therapeutic environment that was provided by the Wellness Center, his parent said.

Going back to McClure in August 2022, S.M. struggled with his mental health and ultimately struggled with his desire to attend school. More than once during IEP team meetings, S.M.’s parent was told it was their responsibility to get S.M. to school, and the IEP team indicated that it did not need to do anything more to assist in this endeavor, the parent said.

And since efforts to get S.M. to school on their own were not working, his parents then applied for him to receive intermittent medical homebound education, in order to ensure that he had access to the general education curriculum and an opportunity to earn credits toward his high school diploma.

“He’s been robbed of his high school experience,” S.M.’s parent said. “These are words that are from him. He has not been able to go to any high school activities. Going to a football game, going to a dance, or other activities, because he has never been given the opportunity to interact with other students. He’s been isolated. So his free education should encompass all of that — engaging in school and the community and being raised by the village. This is part of the village, education is part of the village.”

When asked about how their overall experience has been in dealing with the district, S.M.’s parent said they have felt very overwhelmed and unheard.

“Due to the lack of proper support and or a supportive therapeutic placement that could have made a difference for him, my son is choosing to not seek out further education after high school,” the parent said. “And that will affect his future and his life. S.M.'s life and education do matter.”

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.