Lawsuit Filed to Force AISD to End Chronic Special Ed Delays

No more time to wait

The Rosedale School, AISD's school for students with severe special needs (Photo by John Anderson)

Advocacy group Disability Rights Texas has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Austin ISD, alleging that the district has denied free and appropriate public education to thousands of students, including the five plaintiffs, by not evaluating their special education needs timely as required by law. The group is calling for sweeping changes: "Austin ISD is failing its students with disabilities because its evaluation system is broken," reads the complaint.

The civil suit asks AISD to expedite evaluations and provide compensatory services for the student plaintiffs, and to make broad changes – including hiring many new specialists – to fix the issues identified. The Chronicle reported in February that hundreds of students were waiting to be evaluated for special education services, in large part due to an exodus of school psychologists and other evaluators citing overwork, low salaries, and toxic work environments.

The lawsuit argues that AISD's continued inability to adequately staff special education has resulted in multiple violations of federal law, including Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in providing public services, and IDEA (the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act), which defines what kinds of disability make a student eligible for services. The delays in evaluations, the suit reads, were not just unfortunate yet inevitable circumstances, but "a failure ... in bad faith, a gross violation of professional judgment, deliberately indifferent, and the result of intentional discrimination."

States, in this case the Texas Education Agency, are required to make the rules that implement IDEA, which in Texas include a 15-day deadline for districts to respond to parents' requests for evaluations, a 45-day deadline to complete them, and a three-year cycle for reevaluations as students grow and their needs change. According to the lawsuit, around 800 current and prospective AISD students are waiting, in some cases for more than a year, for their initial evaluations, and around 1,600 for reevaluations. In the meantime, they go without critically needed support services or simply do not go to school at all.

Those left in extended limbo include Andrea Troncoso, a plaintiff on behalf of her 5-year-old daughter. Last year Tron­coso, a mother of three, noticed her middle daughter needed a more rigid schedule, had different emotional reactions to stress than her other children, and struggled with speaking up around adults. "[She] shuts down around strangers," Troncoso said. "It goes beyond being an introvert and shy. [She] won't ask for help."

Advocacy group Disability Rights Texas alleges in a March 29 complaint: “Austin ISD is failing its students with disabilities because its evaluation system is broken.”

As this behavior extended into the classroom, Troncoso asked for an evaluation, suspecting that her daughter might need help for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, selective mutism, or oppositional defiant disorder. "I still maintain [that] I don't need a label for my kid," Troncoso said. "But we need resources, because we're just kind of going about this blindly."

That was more than a year ago, and Troncoso says she's "heard radio silence from AISD" on when an evaluation might take place. Her daughter has returned to in-person classes and begun to see a counselor, but without any treatment or education plan in place: "We're all kind of going about it as we see it, but without any sort of evaluation [or] any sort of idea of what kind of resources we really need," Troncoso said.

AISD declined to comment on pending litigation, but district leadership has publicly discussed the special evaluation backlog before, although they've cited different figures of how many children are affected than DRTx. In early March, staff told the AISD Board of Trustees that 437 referrals were waiting to be evaluated and 958 initial evaluations and reevaluations were underway; Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth Casas said AISD's goal was to clear the backlog the end of the school year, with parents getting clear time frames before then. "I'm committing the staff to this," Casas said. "Communication will start fairly quickly after spring break."

However, spring break ended March 22, and some parents are still waiting. "Beginning in our third week after spring break, we are working diligently to notify parents of upcoming evaluations by prioritizing by individual student case and timeline," AISD wrote in a statement. It did not provide requested details on how many parents had been notified.

Trasell Under­wood, who first requested a reevaluation for her second-grader 18 months ago, said she has not heard back from the district and still has no idea when he will be evaluated. Since the Chronicle first reported on her story, Underwood has been advised by her son's doctor to look into dyslexia treatment, further adding to her worry about the impact of AISD's delays on his progress.

However, Underwood said she is "hopeful" that the lawsuit will be a wake-up call that could lead to compensatory services for AISD students who faced delays, although damage has already been done. She said that those in charge at AISD "have a history of putting [delays] on whoever was over this previously," Underwood said. "Parents don't have time to wait for this current administration to get it right. We're already a year or two behind ... This is urgent."

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Disability Rights Texas, Austin ISD, special ed, IDEA, Texas Education Agency, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Andrea Troncoso, Elizabeth Casas, Trasell Underwood

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