A federal district judge last week denied Austin ISD's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of students with disabilities over the district's failure to evaluate students in need of special education services in a timely manner. The case was filed in April by Disability Rights Texas, the state's federally recognized advocacy agency for people with disabilities, and five elementary-age plaintiffs whose overdue evaluations were part of a huge backlog that piled up at AISD's struggling special education division, beginning in the 2018-19 school year. Federal and state law establishes timelines for these evaluations (and regular reevaluations) so that students with special needs can get the services and support to which they are entitled under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and not fall further behind their classmates.
The massive backlog, which DRTx says delayed and thus denied appropriate services to at least 2,400 AISD students, began to accumulate after evaluators began to resign amid complaints about workload, low compensation, and toxic professional environments. That trend only worsened as staff morale declined further during the pandemic. In May, AISD Chief Academic Officer Elizabeth Casas said the district had 900 evaluations in its backlog – twice the number it had previously reported. (The DRTx number, which is nearly double that, includes both initial evaluations and reevaluations.)
After the Chronicle and other news outlets reported on AISD's special-ed dysfunction, to get back on track, the district contracted with outside evaluators, hired a new special education director, and asked its Central Office special education staff to reapply for their positions. In July, the district said the backlog had been cleared and its special education reorganization was "90% complete." It vowed to enter the 2021-22 school year with no backlog. Therefore, AISD argued, the lawsuit is now moot, and any remaining issues can be resolved with the district's existing administrative process.
But U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that DRTx's claims of systemic failures in AISD special education mean such in-house remedies may be futile. Additionally, Yeakel wrote, even if the backlog has been cleared, "Plaintiffs identify other IDEA violations that preclude mootness, including unfinished evaluations, outstanding reevaluations, and unprescribed compensatory education."
What does DRTx want? The group seeks acknowledgment from AISD that their policies have violated the law and a guarantee to change them, along with attorney's fees. "We are pleased that the court sees the need for this case to move forward," said Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney at DRTx. "It's time to stop these students from being robbed of their right to these services and in the long run, of their chance to have a successful future."
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