Report: Fairfax students with disabilities suspended more than other students

Students with disabilities in Fairfax County Public Schools are more likely than their peers without disabilities to be suspended and fail state tests, according to a new report.

The report, completed over two years by the nonprofit group American Institutes for Research at a cost of about $463,000, was commissioned by the Fairfax School Board in October 2020. The researchers looked at data from students, audited students’ special education plans, conducted focus groups with school staff and families, interviewed parents, and observed classrooms.

Some of the report’s findings were positive, including that Fairfax has “strong division-level leadership and infrastructure for special education services” and that many parents of students with disabilities report very positive feelings about the towards their children’s teachers. But others were strongly negative: Over the study period, students with disabilities were 3.1 times more likely to receive an in-school suspension and 4.4 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their non-disabled peers. The report also found that between 2016 and 2019, the state end-of-year exam pass rate was consistently 30% lower for students with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers.

The report makes several suggestions for changing Fairfax’s special education system, including reducing the workload for special education teachers, developing more comprehensive professional development plans for special education teachers, and issuing guidance to district level for communication between schools and parents of students with disabilities.

The report will serve as the basis for a new comprehensive plan for Fairfax special education students, a plan the school board hopes to finalize in February. As a first step, the board met on Tuesday to review and discuss the report with its authors. Many members praised the researchers for their work and promised a better way forward.

“It’s difficult, it’s painful, but I believe this will be our roadmap to the success we promise to achieve for every student,” board member Megan McLaughlin said during the meeting.

A school district spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report on Tuesday.

The report looked at student data between 2016 and 2019, omitting the months of pandemic-era education — when education was delivered primarily online — because the researchers decided that conclusions drawn from this period would not be applicable to regular in-person learning. Fairfax, which serves about 179,000 students, making it Virginia’s largest school district, serves about 28,000 students with disabilities, according to the report — and employs about 6,300 special education staff in nearly 200 schools.

Positive findings from the 213-page report also include finding that Fairfax has an effective system for identifying students with disabilities in the early years, that many parents believe special education services meet the needs of their students, and that “parents are generally satisfied with the educational opportunities and social inclusion of their children. The report further revealed that Fairfax engages in recruitment and retention efforts for special education staff and that the district was successful in retaining approximately 90% of them between 2015 and 2019.

But negative results include that many new Fairfax teachers lack preparation to adequately support their students with disabilities, that “special education services are implemented inconsistently across the district” and that progress reports for students with disabilities” does not provide sufficiently detailed data-based information. The report also found that Fairfax is not meeting the state of Virginia’s goals for the percentage of time that students with disabilities should follow in general education classrooms, that Fairfax maintains a special education student-teacher ratio below the Virginia state average, and that “district communication about special education may be inconsistent and difficult to access.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, a long-time advocate for improving special education, said the results shocked her.

“I really appreciate your report, it’s so empowering, I’ve been saying this stuff since 2011,” she said. “I’m so angry. I’m so angry that we’re still here.

The report presents 19 detailed suggestions for changes to Fairfax’s special education program. Many relate to communication with parents, including proposals that Fairfax develop a standard procedure for documenting parental input when determining whether a student is eligible for special education services and when developing of a student’s special education plan. Other suggestions include posting guidance on “special education caseloads and class sizes” and making more information available on the Fairfax website for prospective special education employees. .

At Tuesday’s meeting, council member Karl Frisch asked how long it would take to implement all of the recommendations set out in the report. One of the researchers said it would take at least three years.

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