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PA Pressing Schools To Ensure Special-Ed Students Aren't On Their Own

KEYSTONE CROSSROADS - After a pair of state investigations, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Special Education will send new guidelines to school districts across the state on how to identify and serve students who require surrogate parents to advocate for their special-education rights.

The directive comes on the heels of complaints filed on behalf of two homeless students in Philadelphia who didn't receive surrogates and ultimately failed to receive special-education accommodations.

According to federal law, when special-education students don't have guardians, school districts must assign them a surrogate who will fight for their legal rights and approve services the student will receive. Surrogates volunteer for the role and are typically substitute teachers or someone who has a relationship with the child.

A deeper inquiry into the School District of Philadelphia found the district office assigned only two surrogates last year, despite indications that many more students might require them. State investigators pointed to that number as part of a deeper issue, but district officials dispute that interpretation.

The state bureau will now require the district to reform its system for assigning surrogate parents.

The advocates whose complaints triggered the investigation say the results suggest bigger problems with the way Pennsylvania serves some of its most vulnerable students.

"This finding indicates that we are not serving students who are facing systemic barriers in a way that allows them equal access to their education," said Paige Joki, a law fellow at the Education Law Center.

District officials, however, say the complaint involves only two students and isn't indicative of a larger failing.

"I don't see any evidence of that," said Karyn Lynch, the district's chief of student support services.

Lynch argued the problem could have been solved more quickly and efficiently if ELC had brought the two cases to their attention instead of requesting a state investigation.

"We would much rather work collaboratively rather than be in a situation where others are taking victory for something that we have done with fidelity throughout." she said. "The bottom line is helping students and ensuring that students' rights are protected."

Unaccompanied homeless students are among those who are supposed to have surrogate parents, and federal law allows shelter staff to take on those duties temporarily.

"There was virtually no person dedicated to looking out for that person to make sure they were getting what they needed at school," said Loki, referring to the homeless students that spurred the investigation.

"Without that person these students do not have a voice," Loki added.

Disputing the numbers

The fact that the School District of Philadelphia's Surrogate Coordinator assigned only two surrogate parents last school year "suggests a failure of the SDP to identify children in need of [surrogate] parents," state investigators wrote. ELC advocates also pointed to that number as evidence of a larger problem.

District officials, though, say that number is misleading. In most cases, they said, school-level administrators find surrogates who know the student in need and the district's official Surrogate Coordinator doesn't have to get involved.

"This work takes place all over the school district," said Lynch.

Going forward, the state will require Philadelphia school officials to establish a process for identifying special education students who are also unaccompanied homeless youth. The district is also required to train staff on the process for appointing surrogates and train shelter workers to assume the role.

Then there's the matter of tracking.

In new guidelines it will issue this winter, the state will recommend districts keep disaggregated data on unaccompanied homeless youth with disabilities and reinforce "the need to ensure that temporary surrogate parents are timely appointed."

There are about 30,000 homeless students in Pennsylvania, 4,200 of which aren't  accompanied by a guardian, according to a recent state report.

That same report said there were roughy 6,900 homeless Pennsylvania children who were identified as having a special education disability -- about 23 percent of all homeless students in the Commonwealth -- and another 6,600 for whom special education information wasn't available.

Extrapolating those numbers, if about 23 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youth in Pennsylvania also need special education services, that would come out to about 1,000 students statewide.

Over the last three years, the state's Bureau of Special Education found 20 local education agencies that were "out of compliance" when it came to assigning surrogate parents. The state did not name those local education agencies or say whether they were traditional districts or charter schools. The state monitored 310 local education agencies during that three-year period, meaning about 6 percent were out of compliance.

State investigators did not, however, find a systemic failure on the state level to ensure compliance with surrogacy regulations.

They also said that while Philadelphia failed to provide surrogates to students, that failure did not "indicate a systemic violation" of students' rights to special education services under the federal law.

ELC advocates disagree with that subset of the state's conclusions.