State: Denver violated rights of disabled black boys

Denver public schools have systematically violated the rights of black boys with disabilities who attend specialized programs, state education officials have found in a sweeping investigation.

The Colorado Department of Education found that the state’s largest school district was sending black boys into specialty programs without thoroughly evaluating them and then failing to properly monitor their progress once there, among other violations.

The boys attend “emotional needs centers,” which are separate classrooms designed to serve emotionally challenged students. The district’s own data shows black boys were 4.5 times more likely than other students to be placed in the centers, which the district says has high staff turnover, below-average supplies and makes students feel ‘other’.

The district previously called its emotional needs centers “one of our most egregious examples of institutional racism.” But a plan to abolish the classrooms was scrapped because district leaders decided they couldn’t serve students appropriately without them. The pre-pandemic graduation rate for black students at the centers was 38%, according to district documents.

These statistics, along with her experience advocating for families, prompted Pam Bisceglia to file a pair of complaints with the Federal Office for Civil Rights and the Colorado Department of Education on behalf of black students.

“We see that if a student is white, the school’s response doesn’t tend to be the same as when a student is black,” said Bisceglia, who is the executive director of Advocacy Denver.

“There are schools where they are fast-tracking – they are directing kids into special education. We see where for some reason this principal or the culture of this school is that black males seem taller and more dangerous than other students.

A long list of offenses

The federal complaint is still pending, but a state complaints officer found a long list of violations that occurred between March 2021 and March 2022.

They include that the district:

  • Failed to ensure that black male students in emotional needs centers were educated “to the extent possible” with non-disabled peers and were able to participate in extracurricular activities. In one example cited in the decision, staff wrote that a student was “doing very well in general education,” but refused to increase the time he spent in class with able-bodied peers.
  • Failed to conduct comprehensive assessments of the disabilities of black male students or consider parent information in some assessments. For example, a student’s assessment was based on test scores from three years earlier.
  • Did not write goals in students’ Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, that would allow them to progress through the general education program. Of the 50 IEPs reviewed by the state, nearly half of them — 21 in total — had no such goals.
  • Failed to consistently monitor and report student progress against IEP goals and address when students have not progressed. For example, a student had only one progress report for the 2021-22 school year – and it was empty.
  • Has not ensured that all emotional needs programs have sufficient numbers of teachers with appropriate certifications and licenses. A program for students with severe needs had to switch to virtual learning for several months last year due to a shortage of teachers.

Julie Rottier-Lukens, executive director of exceptional student services, said while Denver Public Schools were concerned about what was happening in its emotional needs centers, the state’s decision was “revealing” in showing the magnitude of the problem.

Rottier-Lukens said the district promises to make changes.

“We’re very committed to making sure that we don’t just tick the boxes of findings and solutions, but really dig beyond that to address the systems that need to change,” she said.

Hoping for a difference

The state’s complaints officer found that Denver Public Schools had proper procedures written on paper, but district staff did not follow them. The ruling directs special education staff — from managers to teachers to school psychologists — to undergo training on conducting comprehensive special education assessments, developing and reviewing IEPs, determining programs students should attend, and more.

The training will be provided by the Colorado Department of Education. Denver Public Schools staff must complete training by Jan. 31. District leaders must also submit a corrective action plan to the state by October 10, and district personnel must read and understand it by November 18.

Rottier-Lukens said the district is still developing its corrective action plan. Bisceglia said she hopes it will also include training for non-special education staff — including teachers and principals who disproportionately refer black boys to emotional needs centers.

There have been fewer referrals throughout the pandemic, Rottier-Lukens said, as teachers were cautious on labeling students with emotional difficulties given the trauma many have experienced. But now that students are back in person, she said the district needs to make sure emotional needs centers don’t become a “default” for students with challenging behaviors.

All district staff, Rottier-Lukens said, should “consider what additional resources we can provide to our schools and providers so they can have what they need to support the children in their neighborhood or community.” school of their choice, instead of assuming that there is some sort of silver bullet or magic wand that exists in affective needs programming?”

Bisceglia hopes the same.

“DPS admitted that this is an example of institutional racism, and it continues to be true,” she said. “We hope that the training provided by [the Colorado Department of Education] and by giving the tools to school leaders, we will see a difference.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at [email protected].

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