Ky. district excessively removed disabled students from class —including one for 63 days

Breathitt Co. High School in Jackson, Ky., Thursday, August 14,  2014. Downtown Jackson is in the background.
Breathitt Co. High School in Jackson, Ky., Thursday, August 14, 2014. Downtown Jackson is in the background. Herald-Leader

Breathitt County School officials inappropriately disciplined special education students with mild mental disabilities, an audit found, excessively removing them from classrooms or suspending them from school grounds but recording that they were voluntarily absent.

One disabled student received out-of-school suspensions for 63 1/2 days.

That’s one of the reasons the Breathitt County district will have the rare distinction of being managed by the state for at least one more year, making for a total of seven.

Breathitt County has made “notable gains” in six years under state management but is not ready to operate on its own, Interim Kentucky Commissioner Wayne Lewis has concluded.

On Wednesday, the Kentucky Board of Education voted to keep the school district in Eastern Kentucky under state management where it has been since 2012. In 2014, the Kentucky Board of Education voted to keep Breathitt County in state management for an additional three years. Another decision will be made by December 2019.

When the state first decided to take over Breathitt, Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster said, the former superintendent had gone to federal prison and school board members were buying votes and employing relatives.

“It was a very corrupt district. Children were not at the forefront,” Foster said, “From where they were, to where they are now, night and day.”

But Foster said, “We want to know that they are ready and are not going to go backward.”

“We have no desire as a department to manage school districts,” said Lewis, “ You don’t want to pull out until the district has the capacity to stand on its own two feet.”

The Breathitt County Board of Education decided last week not to fight being kept in state management.

In an Aug. 3 letter to Breathitt Superintendent Phillip Watts, Lewis said the findings of two audits revealed a pattern of a “significant lack of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Lewis told the board on Wednesday that state officials will conduct another audit within the next year and make a fresh recommendation.

As a result of the state-management designation, all aspects of the district’s management are exercised by the commissioner or a state manager. Breathitt has also hired a new superintendent with the state’s help.

Foster said the state had concentrated on the district’s finances for the first few years because the district was previously “broke” and had only been focused on instruction for the last two years. She said the state had removed a principal and two assistant principals at schools with low performance.

But problems remain.

The special education management audit found significant violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Under the act, district officials have to take a student’s disability into account when disciplining them. But in Breathitt, that often didn’t happen and school officials avoided having required meetings in which they had to justify suspending special education students, auditors said.

The district failed to document why special classes, separate schooling, or other removals of children with disabilities from the regular education environment were necessary.

In addition to issues over suspending students with mild mental disabilities, that audit found that Breathitt County staff did not have the training to deal with students with behavior problems. District officials and staff were not widely using the behavior-management system recommended by Congress, the report said.

District administrators reported that principals lack understanding of discipline for students with disabilities and use automatic suspensions, the report said. One school principal said that discipline was the same for disabled students as it was for other students. Bus drivers told auditors they needed to know more about the disabilities of the students they drove.

During the 2015-16 school year, three students with disabilities had out-of-school removals or suspensions for greater than 10 days. During the 2016-17 school year, three students with disabilities had out-of-school removals for greater than 10 days. That number included one student who received 63.5 days of out-of-school suspension, the report said.

The audit also found that district officials violated federal law because students with disabilities were subjected to in-school suspension in excess of 20 to 30 school days. The report said it was not sufficient for a special education teacher to just drop in on students in the in -school suspension program.

Eight students with disabilities received in-school suspension for greater than 10 days during the 2016-17 school year. Of those eight students, two attended in school suspension in excess of 20 school days and one attended in-school suspension in excess of 30 school days.

A separate district management audit found that members of the Breathitt school board did not clearly understand “who was accountable to whom.” That district management audit also found several deficiencies in other areas, including career and technical education.

Floyd County Schools in southeastern Kentucky recently underwent a similar special education management audit in which several deficiencies were found and Lewis said in a recent statement that the state is working with that district.

In response to the Breathitt findings, Watts provided the Herald-Leader with a news release in which he said “I appreciate the support provided by the Kentucky Department of Education and look forward to continuing our partnership.”

In the release, Lewis said the district “will continue to partner with the Kentucky Department of Education to improve special education, career and technical education and other areas identified in a recent state management audit. “

Menifee County Schools is the only other district in the state that is state-managed. The estimated budget impact to the Kentucky Department of Education for staffing in state managed districts is $1.5 million annually. There are currently seven state staff members working in Breathitt.

An 87-page audit by the Kentucky Department of Education found 'numerous violations' among Floyd County District Schools involving accommodations and students with disabilities.