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Multiple violations in special education program found at Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System

The investigation involved three complaints filed by parents, saying that their students in the special education program aren't getting the services they need.

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. — An investigation into the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System's special education program found a number of violations in the district. 

The Muskegon ISD presented the investigation at Tuesday night's academy board meeting. The investigation involved three complaints filed by parents, saying their students in the special education program aren't getting the services they need. A fourth complaint is still being investigated.

Three parents reported the district didn't hire a special education teacher or provider for the 2022-2023 school year, and in their complaint, they asked the state if their child's right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE, was violated.  

The state reviewed documents and conducted interviews with the parents, as well as district staff and administration. Their investigation found that the district did not provide special education in alignment with the students' Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. 

The state also found that the district did not develop those IEPs to the students' unique needs and they did not ensure staff was in place to provide special education. 

The state ruled students were denied a FAPE. During public comment, teachers expressed there aren't just problems with the district's special education program, but the curriculum, too.

"I need help through the IEP system and special education to reach these two boys who are not gonna make it here," Barbara Jackson says. 

"These students are being set up to fail. In fact, I have one other thing I want to tell you. When I raised this to the principal, I was told if they don't learn, they'll be retained," Julia Koch says. "But in the mean time have a miserable year, kids, do your best."

While the state found that the district had a lack of sufficient staff and resources, they say that does not justify the violations. 

The district's managing firm, New Paradigm for Education, issued a statement after Tuesday night's meeting: 

"As of today there are 6 teachers as well as 8 non-instructional special education service providers (i.e. school social workers, speech and language pathologists, school psychologist, etc.) serving the students in the district.

Since the beginning of the school year, we have worked and continue to work tirelessly to build our special education department, bringing on additional resources and partners to both fill a number of vacant positions, as well as bringing the district to a place where services reflect the quality of education that students and families deserve.

We will continue to work toward ensuring that students in Muskegon Heights receive a high quality education that the community can be proud of, ensuring that remaining vacancies are filled, compliance dates are met, that IEP meetings for the students in the high school classroom are completed before the deadline, and that any other items related to the complaint are addressed."

Dr. Donald Weatherspoon with the academy board's consulting, National Charter Schools Institute, says since they were brought early on in the school year, they heard as little as one special education teacher or provider was working in the district. 

"Since we were brought on board, we’ve been asking similar questions about what provisions are being made for special needs services and making the process to correct the problems transparent so the parents and students know," he says.

Now, multiple corrective actions are required for the district to complete. 

New IEPs for at least eight students need to be developed, and the district will need to complete 12 hours of compensatory education for at least seven students. That could mean tutoring for students in the special needs program outside of school hours.

Depending on the student, the district will need to complete one to two hours of occupational therapy or speech and language services. 

The district has until Jan. 15 to do a review of every student with an IEP and submit it to the state, as well as review all the special education teachers and providers on their certifications to determine if the district needs more. 

By the middle of next June, the district is required by the state to review or develop procedures regarding IEP, procedures regarding IEP implementation and procedures to document and ensure it for all students. 

The academy board also announced that they are dropping the lawsuit filed against the district board. 

"There's no purpose in going forward with the lawsuit right now because we have to get through what's going on with the children and the provider," Dr. Weatherspoon says. "Focus cannot be taken away from the kids and the performance of the provider." 

There was also a change in leadership at the meeting. Recently appointed board members Dr. Rose Hunt will now serve as president. She says at the following meeting, they will talk about more concerns raised, like the teacher shortage in the district. 

The next academy board meeting is next Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the high school. 

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