TAMPA, Fla. — When schools switched from classrooms to living rooms last spring, it was stressful for all involved.
But maybe more so for those parents who have children with special needs and are assigned an IEP or Individualized Education Program, which outlines everything needed for the child to succeed in school.
If a child has one, not just state but also federal law requires districts to follow them, no matter what, even in a pandemic when things go virtual.
But as 10 Investigates uncovered, that did not happen for some Bay area parents.
“He's going to be going into the second grade in mainstream second-grade public school,” Corinne Stobaugh explained of her son.
Energetic, lovable, 7-year-old Gabe Stobaugh has a rare genetic disorder called kabuki syndrome.
“We are lucky that Gabe is mildly affected,” Corinne explained to 10 Investigates' Jennifer Titus.
But, Gabe does have some developmental delays which result in him needing a little extra help. It's something that is documented in Gabe’s IEP. For Gabe, in order to be successful, he needs additional adult support during his day to day activities.
“He has the extra supports in his IEP, and to me, that is kind of his treatment,” said Corinne.
But that treatment wasn’t exactly followed when students were forced to go virtual with their lessons in the spring.
Lisa Ferlita says her daughter Lucy is in the same situation as Gabe.
“Lucy was born with a very rare genetic disorder called EMARD."
EMBARD is Early Onset Myopathy, areflexia, Respiratory Distress, Dysphagia.
Despite the rare diagnosis, Lucy continued learning at school.
“Her brain is not affected, thank goodness,” explained Lisa.
But like Gabe, in order to succeed, Lucy does need some help, also outlined in her IEP.
Jennifer Titus: “Was the school district able to follow that when the schools closed and went virtual?”
“No. No, no, not really," said Lisa.
We heard the same story over and over in multiple emails from other Hillsborough County School parents.
According to an Executive Order from the Florida Department of Education, it is required by law for these IEPs to be followed.
The order clearly states: “Students with IEPs must be given the services necessary to ensure they experience a free and appropriate education.”
But some of the parents we spoke to are sharing stories of schools not following IEPs before the pandemic even happened.
"The school they did a lot of evaluations and made that recommendation is a one on one aid, but then they say, well, we don't have the resources to provide one," said Corinne.
So, 10 Investigates wanted to know why.
We requested the number of special needs teacher openings at Bay area schools.
- Sarasota County: 10 openings
- Pinellas County: 6 openings
- Polk County: 38 openings
- Pasco County: 20 openings
- Hillsborough County: 110 openings
Hillsborough is the third largest district in the state, so we reached out to the fourth-largest district in the state, Orange County for a comparison. They have 10 openings.
And, the largest school district in Florida is Miami-Dade County. They have 150 special needs openings.
After discovering such a big divide in the numbers, we reached out to the Hillsborough County School Board to find out why.
“That's a really good question. And, you know, one that I'll be, you know, digging into...because one of the areas, like I said, is personnel and ensuring that we have, you know, the staffing that we need to support, not only the diverse population, not only that we're hiring diverse candidates, but that we also have the staff to support our students with diverse and unique needs,” explained Monica Verra-Tirado, the Chief of Equity and Diversity for Hillsborough County Schools.
Verra-Tirado took on the position in July 2020.
We brought these concerns from parents to her and she told 10 Investigates, Jennifer Titus the issues are concerning.
“You know, the law requires us to respond to those things,” said Verra-Tirado.
She says her priority will be to fill the open positions and make sure the needs of these children are met.
“Both in Hillsborough, and in the state, there are many layers to help ensure that families are getting their needs met,” said Monica Verra-Tirado.
But, when asked if there had been any discussion about IEPs or how they are going to work when classes resume, parents we spoke to say they have gotten very little, and in some cases, no direction.
“They haven't even discussed an IEP. I had to make my own plans,” said Lisa.
Lisa says they have entered Lucy into the district’s Hospital Homebound program for the fall. But that program only provides them with a nurse for four hours for an entire week.
We did reach out to the Florida Department of Education with these parents' concerns.
They sent us an email stating:
"This is a crucial reason why Emergency Order 2020-06 was signed, as it is vitally important for schools to provide all students with a world-class education, especially those students who are most at risk. The order sought to preserve and create healthy, parent and community driven options to ensure schools and educational supports remain accessible to those families who need them the most.
All children are afforded the benefit of legally required instructional days and hours, and students with special needs (disabilities) and other at risk students must also receive additional educational supports pursuant to state and federal law. Many of these at risk students need in-person instruction, especially if they are to recover lost learning and close achievement gaps.
No federal or state requirements have been waived regarding students with disabilities and the emergency order reinforces critical supports and steps in a student’s IEP process that must be maintained. As we have been approving districts’ reopening plans, this is the number one issue that our staff and school district leaders have collaborated on."
If anyone feels like their child's IEP is not being followed... the Florida Department of Education wants families to reach out to them by clicking here.
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