DIGGING DEEPER: State board to monitor Dunlap Special Education Dept.

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 10:22 PM CST
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DUNLAP (25 News Now) - The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) wants a closer look at Dunlap’s Special Education Department.

The letter from the state board says the on-site visit is part routine, as District #323 started its own program this year, but also because a “significant” number of disputes has been filed with the state in the past two school years.

Parents say goals stated in their children’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) are not being met prior to, and after the district left the Special Education Association of Peoria County (SEAPCO) to form its own Special Ed department to start the 2022 school year.

Parents say they have had to work overtime because they claim the IEPs, contracts backed by federal law, are not being followed by the district.

When 25News asked Superintendent Scott Dearman how student’s IEPs are being met after leaving SEAPCO, he provided the following statement:

“Our mission in Dunlap CUSD #323 is to empower all students to meet their individual potential. Beginning in 2018, the District began focused conversations about the district’s phased withdrawal from the Special Education Association of Peoria County cooperative. At the core of these discussions, the District worked to develop a robust continuum of special education programming to educate all District students in the least restrictive environment – specifically, educate Dunlap students in their home schools and district. While the formal withdrawal process began five years ago, during the 2010 school year, the district employed its own psychologists and social workers, and established its own Life Skills programs.

Starting with the 2020 school year, Dunlap hired its own occupational therapists and physical therapists to meet its students’ needs. Moreover, during the 2021 school year, the district started its own preschool program.

Special education teachers serve as case managers for students with IEPs, district staff provide interventions specific to IEP goals and all district staff work together to make appropriate adaptations within the general education setting in partnership with general education teachers. Any related service minutes that are specific to individual student IEPs are provided by the appropriate professionals. Each spring, district administration reviews and addresses the number of staff needed in order to meet the needs of all district students. If additional staffing is required, it is presented to the Board of Education.”

“The whole mission of the school district is to empower all students and I really want my kids, even if they’re special needs, to be treated just like you would treat any honor student,” said Dunlap parent, Chrissy Malson.

Malson has two students in the Dunlap School District, an area she specifically moved to for the public schools. Her oldest has autism and has an IEP.

“This is a very well-regarded school district and the bandwidth it takes as a parent to fight to monitor, to make sure your kids (are) getting their things in their IEPs met and they’re appropriate and they’re done consistently, it’s just exhausting as a parent,” said Malson.

She’s filed three complaints with the state since the fall, claiming her child’s IEP has not been met. One, she says was unfounded and the other two remain open with the state. In one of the filings, she says she wasn’t getting her son’s test scores or notified when her son’s aide was not at school.

“It’s not just your kid’s safety, but it’s also your kid’s well-being, their happiness. You want to make sure school is an enjoyable place,” said Malson.

She’s not the only parent.

The State Board of Education is monitoring Dunlap’s Special Education Department with a site visit later this semester, in-part as a routine as the district’s departure from SEAPCO, but also citing a “significant” number of dispute filings, making sure the district is following state and federal guidelines.

“I really want ISBE to come in and totally reshape the program,” said Malson.

Superintendent Dearman says they are always looking for ways to improve and look forward to feedback from the state.

However, for the Dawson family, it’s too late. Once they found out the district was leaving SEAPCO, they left too and moved out of Dunlap. The family wanted the program to be piloted before having their son back in Dunlap’s building. Their child was taking his classes at a different building in the district, through SEAPCO.

“They demanded that any student, who were receiving services outside the district, through SEAPCO, had to then come back into district and they were going to create programs,” said parent, Emily Dawson.

Since 2017, Dawson says her family has spent more than $50,000 for legal fees, taking out loans and credit cards. It was all to make sure her son, also with autism, was receiving the education he was entitled too with an IEP.

“I don’t want them to have to go through what we went through. I don’t want it to get as bad as it did for my child,” said Dawson.

Attorney Shaun Cusack says parents should always document in-person meetings in writing and bring in an attorney or advocate.

“Litigation isn’t cheap. There’s a provision within the U.S. Dept. of Education’s law regarding these types of situations that enable families to recover costs of litigation,” said Cusack.

Both Dawson and Malson want other parents to know they’re not alone when advocating for their child.

“I really want equity in this district,” said Malson.

It might be difficult for parents to know who to talk about their child’s IEP at the school. The woman the state believes is in charge of special ed at Dunlap, Alyssa Hart, is listed on Dunlap’s website with another job title. Also, there’s an opening for a new special ed director on Dunlap’s website and the Superintendent says Hart has resigned from the job.

ISBE tells 25News the primary focus of state monitoring is to improve educational results and functional outcomes for all children with disabilities.

Parents looking for resources can look at these websites: The Family Matters Volunteer Advocate Program and the Illinois Guardianship Advocacy and Commission.