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Special Inquiry at LAUSD

Internal investigators have cleared a Huntington Park middle school of allegations that staff members falsified special-education documents for as many as 120 students last May in the face of a state audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District. A review of the district's inquiry, however, shows that investigators failed to look at the content of the suspect documents, or to interview the teacher who made the accusations. The preparation of bogus documents would violate state and federal law.

The internal probe, prepared by the Office of School Operations and issued under the signature of Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, found the staff of Nimitz Middle School to be "dedicated to achieving compliance to ensure that students in special education were being appropriately served." There are about 300 Nimitz students eligible for special-ed services.

The district investigation arose from an August story in the Weekly, in which veteran special-education teacher Frank Porras accused the school of assembling fabricated student histories and educational plans to make school records appear up-to-date. Porras said he refused a direct request from the principal to oversee weekend cram sessions to prepare documents for students he didn't know. "The whole thing was done as a sham," said Porras in the interview.

Porras' account was corroborated by other staff members, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. Porras himself transferred to another school and declined all subsequent requests for interviews.

The California education-code section that governs the compiling and maintenance of such student plans, known as IEPs, is very specific. The plans are to be produced annually by a team that includes a special-education administrator, the pupil's teacher and one or both parents. Fundamental to this process is that the instructor involved must have firsthand knowledge of the child.

The initial focus of the district's internal probe was made clear by Zacarias himself. He ordered the inquiry in a September 11, 1997, memo titled "Newspaper Article on Nimitz Middle School and Special Education IEPs," which begins with the statement, "In response to the Los Angeles Weekly article . . ."

Yet in interviews last month, district officials conceded they never looked for documentary evidence of the allegation that teachers and others were asked to prepare boilerplate documents on children they didn't know, which would violate the law. Leslie Barnebey, an administrator on the review team, explained that Porras declined to cooperate with investigators, and, while Porras remains employed by the district, it was decided not to press the issue.

Instead, the district review team concentrated on authenticating parent signatures on the IEPs. "The parent knows what the disabilities of the child are, and they should know from having the child and having dealt with the child exactly what things need to go into the IEP or what kind of services they want," said Adrienne Konigar, a staff counsel in special education. The district also asserts that translators were available to help non-English-speaking parents interpret the documents.

Such a review doesn't settle the issue, given that deciphering jargon-laden IEPs can be elusive even for fluent English speakers. It would be difficult for many parents to recognize whether portions of an IEP were truly individualized to their child or mere cookie-cutter constructions. But that is the very distinction that would determine the legality of the process.

"Just because an IEP has a parent signature does not mean it is legal," said attorney Bob Myers, who is part of a team monitoring the district's compliance with special-education rules. "There are numerous substantive issues beyond signatures."

The LAUSD as a whole has a dismal record of handling the disabled students who qualify for special education. In 1994, in fact, federal officials threatened to withhold some $27 million in annual funding if the LAUSD did not straighten out its special-ed program; inadequate IEPs were a particular concern. The next year, the district signed a consent decree in federal court admitting its special-ed program was widely out of compliance with the law.

Like other district schools, Nimitz had a sizable backlog of special-education records to update when it was chosen at random for a state special-education audit. Porras, along with other staff, alleged that instead of admitting that the school was out of compliance, as are a vast majority of schools statewide, Nimitz principal Guadalupe Simpson directed that shortcuts be taken to give the appearance of compliance.

Just last week, state regulators confirmed that district officials still have a long way to go. In a review sample of district schools - which did not happen to include Nimitz - investigators concluded, among other things, that the district's IEP forms did not comport with state and federal law. Too often the IEPs were "vaguely written and do not include objective criteria for determining whether objectives are achieved." The district's special-ed program also flunked on the level of parental involvement and, in many instances, failed to provide specific services needed by disabled children.

Internal investigators have cleared a Huntington Park middle school of allegations that staff members falsified special-education documents for as many as 120 students last May in the face of a state audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District. A review of the district's inquiry, however, shows that investigators failed to look at the content of the suspect documents, or to interview the teacher who made the accusations. The preparation of bogus documents would violate state and federal law.

The internal probe, prepared by the Office of School Operations and issued under the signature of Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, found the staff of Nimitz Middle School to be "dedicated to achieving compliance to ensure that students in special education were being appropriately served." There are about 300 Nimitz students eligible for special-ed services.

The district investigation arose from an August story in the Weekly, in which veteran special-education teacher Frank Porras accused the school of assembling fabricated student histories and educational plans to make school records appear up-to-date. Porras said he refused a direct request from the principal to oversee weekend cram sessions to prepare documents for students he didn't know. "The whole thing was done as a sham," said Porras in the interview.

Porras' account was corroborated by other staff members, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. Porras himself transferred to another school and declined all subsequent requests for interviews.

The California education-code section that governs the compiling and maintenance of such student plans, known as IEPs, is very specific. The plans are to be produced annually by a team that includes a special-education administrator, the pupil's teacher and one or both parents. Fundamental to this process is that the instructor involved must have firsthand knowledge of the child.

The initial focus of the district's internal probe was made clear by Zacarias himself. He ordered the inquiry in a September 11, 1997, memo titled "Newspaper Article on Nimitz Middle School and Special Education IEPs," which begins with the statement, "In response to the Los Angeles Weekly article . . ."

Yet in interviews last month, district officials conceded they never looked for documentary evidence of the allegation that teachers and others were asked to prepare boilerplate documents on children they didn't know, which would violate the law. Leslie Barnebey, an administrator on the review team, explained that Porras declined to cooperate with investigators, and, while Porras remains employed by the district, it was decided not to press the issue.

Instead, the district review team concentrated on authenticating parent signatures on the IEPs. "The parent knows what the disabilities of the child are, and they should know from having the child and having dealt with the child exactly what things need to go into the IEP or what kind of services they want," said Adrienne Konigar, a staff counsel in special education. The district also asserts that translators were available to help non-English-speaking parents interpret the documents.

Such a review doesn't settle the issue, given that deciphering jargon-laden IEPs can be elusive even for fluent English speakers. It would be difficult for many parents to recognize whether portions of an IEP were truly individualized to their child or mere cookie-cutter constructions. But that is the very distinction that would determine the legality of the process.

"Just because an IEP has a parent signature does not mean it is legal," said attorney Bob Myers, who is part of a team monitoring the district's compliance with special-education rules. "There are numerous substantive issues beyond signatures."

The LAUSD as a whole has a dismal record of handling the disabled students who qualify for special education. In 1994, in fact, federal officials threatened to withhold some $27 million in annual funding if the LAUSD did not straighten out its special-ed program; inadequate IEPs were a particular concern. The next year, the district signed a consent decree in federal court admitting its special-ed program was widely out of compliance with the law.

Like other district schools, Nimitz had a sizable backlog of special-education records to update when it was chosen at random for a state special-education audit. Porras, along with other staff, alleged that instead of admitting that the school was out of compliance, as are a vast majority of schools statewide, Nimitz principal Guadalupe Simpson directed that shortcuts be taken to give the appearance of compliance.

Just last week, state regulators confirmed that district officials still have a long way to go. In a review sample of district schools - which did not happen to include Nimitz - investigators concluded, among other things, that the district's IEP forms did not comport with state and federal law. Too often the IEPs were "vaguely written and do not include objective criteria for determining whether objectives are achieved." The district's special-ed program also flunked on the level of parental involvement and, in many instances, failed to provide specific services needed by disabled children.


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