Report Claims ‘Alarming Lack of Oversight’ of Connecticut Special Ed Schools

In one academic year, there were more than 1,200 reports of students being restrained or secluded in High Road schools.

High Roads School of Hartford: Primary and Middle School is housed at Louis W. Batchelder School, a K-8 school on New Britain Avenue. (Shahrzad Rasekh/CT Mirror)

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Hundreds of Connecticut special education students who have attended High Road schools have been subjected to restraints and seclusion, teachers without certification and improper services, according to a scathing report released Tuesday by the Office of the Child Advocate and Disability Rights Connecticut.

In one academic year, there were more than 1,200 reports of students being restrained or secluded in High Road schools, the report states.

Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said a two-year investigation of six schools in Hartford, New London, Wallingford and other towns found “an alarming lack of oversight, systemic failings and often flagrant disregard for statutory requirements and state standards that protect the educational rights and safety of children.”

“Practices routinely fall short of state laws, education regulations, best practices, or all three. Changes need to be put in place without delay,” Eagan said.

High Road is one of the Connecticut’s largest state-approved private special education providers, and it primarily serves children from low-income school districts and receives millions in public funds annually, according to the report. 

The 57-page report said the state Department of Education, along with the school districts that sent students to High Road schools, failed to visit the campuses regularly and did not ensure compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

“Many of the students at High Road Schools were grossly underserved both in terms of educational planning and service delivery,” the report said. “The investigation revealed widespread student disengagement and chronic absenteeism across High Road locations, failure to adequately assess and support students’ educational needs through individualized service delivery and perhaps most alarmingly, gross deficiencies in the number of certified special education teachers and other credentialed educational staff working with children and systemic failure to ensure and/or document that staff had undergone employment checks and criminal and child welfare background checks.”

About 316 students were enrolled at six of eight High Road schools in Connecticut during the 2021-22 academic year, with the student body being made up of about 80% boys and 70% students of color from across 38 Connecticut school districts.

Eighty High Road students, or about 25%, were outsourced from Hartford Public Schools, making the capital city’s public school district the “largest district consumer of High Road services,” according to the report.

The state Department of Education said it “vigorously disagree[d] with the conclusions” of the report, adding that the department has been, and is, “attentive to concerns that are brought forth to the State’s attention and engages in off cycle monitoring reviews.”

“During the period of investigation, from 2022 through February 2024, the CSDE received no complaints from parents, from guardians, from students, from attorneys, from parent advocates, or from local or regional school districts regarding High Road schools,” a spokesperson from the department said. “Of note, the CSDE’s Special Education Division annually receives approximately 1,000 filings in the form of hearing requests, mediation requests, or compliance complaints, yet during the period of time covered in the OCA/DRCT Report, not one of those thousands of filings pertained to High Road schools.”

A spokesperson from High Road told The Connecticut Mirror in an emailed statement that the report did “not accurately reflect the academic and behavioral supports at our schools” and that “over the course of two years, High Road Schools provided comprehensive responses that outlined these inaccuracies, as well as highlighted the specific improvements we implemented as part of this process.”

OCA, a state agency, and DRCT, a disability rights nonprofit, investigated the following campuses: High Road School of Hartford Primary/Middle, High Road School of Hartford High School, High Road B.E.S.T. Academy of Wallingford, High Road School of Fairfield County in Norwalk, High Road School of New London and High Road School of Windham County in Killingly from March 2022 to March 2024 through a series of reviews of educational files, classroom observations and interviews. 

DRCT also visited High Road School of Wallingford Primary School and High Road School of Wallingford High School but did not collect data or records, the report states.

Restraint and seclusion 

Connecticut leads the country in its placement of students with disabilities in “separate schools,” according to the report. 

Most are students of color.

In 2021-22, there were more than 1,200 reported incidents of students being restrained or secluded in High Road schools. Nearly 550 of those incidents were reported from High Road School of Hartford Primary/Middle School, the report states.

“It is concerning that students would be isolated in such a manner and with such frequency. Isolation without adequate and required efforts to address students’ needs also raise serious legal questions under the ADA,” the report said, adding that students were often taken out of classrooms into “time-out rooms” where they weren’t allowed to leave.

Jennifer Hoffman, assistant superintendent for special education and pupil services in Hartford, said in a letter responding to the report that the district has worked OCA and DRCT to continue working toward becoming a “trauma-responsive system” and is in “collective acknowledgment that more works needs to be done, between external systems, to reduce the stressors for families that are sending students to school.”

Hoffman’s letter highlighted efforts to expand special education services and monitoring and oversight of students.

The district declined to provide further comment when contacted by the CT Mirror.

Staffing problems

The investigation found that almost half of the teachers employed at High Road did not have adequate teacher certification from the state of Connecticut or did not undergo proper background checks.

The report found that:

  • “In the Windham County Program, 6 out of 8 educational staff had not had DCF background checks;
  • In the New London Program, High Road failed to demonstrate that it had verified employment histories, including any concerns of prior student maltreatment, as required by state law;
  • In the Fairfield County Program, High Road had not conducted a DCF or employee background check for approximately half of the staff;
  • At Hartford-Primary, High Road had not conducted a DCF background check for approximately half of the staff;
  • At Wallingford-BEST program, High Road conducted background checks for the majority, but not all of staff working with children.”

The report also said that the Department of Education had previously found that High Road “had not been consistent in conducting background checks” but never followed up.

“State records do not indicate further follow up by CSDE to ensure that corrective actions were implemented and sustained. OCA/DRCT’s investigation found that despite previous complaints, warnings, and directives and despite clear state law obligations and even contractual requirements … High Road failed to demonstrate that it consistently conducts background checks for employees working with children,” the report said.

The report added that school administrators “did not communicate staffing gaps to [local educational agencies]” and that data from both High Road and the state Department of Education “reflect a high vacancy rate for certified special education teachers and lack of adequate documentation for substitute teachers and individuals with ‘durational permits,’” including a “heavy reliance on long-term substitute teachers” who may not be “appropriately credentialed and approved” by the state.

There was also no documentation of physical education, art or music teachers at these schools. Nurses were not employed at all buildings, according to the report. 

Lack of individualized programming in the classroom

The report highlighted several deficiencies with student individualized education plans, or IEPs, and a lack of functional behavior assessments or behavior intervention plans, which are used to determine the cause of certain behaviors and how to address them.

An analysis of 30 student records showed “little evidence … of individualized instruction, and general program descriptions refer only to a curriculum comprised of ‘four instructional rotations during which students are assessed academically, gain self-regulation skills, learn with district-aligned academic curriculums and utilize integrated technology,’” the report said.

“Records examined included inconsistent information, lacked evidence of comprehensive evaluations, individualized or personalized instructional or behavioral strategies, and did not indicate that progress or failure to progress were regularly reviewed within programs. Across sites there was an apparent lack of access to related services such as clinical/psychological consultation or service,” the report continued, adding that several campuses did not have occupational and speech language therapy “consistent with descriptions of students’ previous developmental, social/emotional, or educational histories.”

The investigation also found that “almost none of the students” received functional behavioral assessments (FBAs) or behavior intervention plans (BIPs) at several campuses. 

Nor did the schools have a board-certified behavior analyst on staff.

“High Road locations all employ school social workers and offer individual and/or group counseling. However, out of 30 student records reviewed by investigators, there were only two BIPs,” the report said. “Student data and individual student records also indicate frequent use of restraint and seclusion without adequate evaluation and response.”

The report illustrated several instances where students required behavioral help, but there was “little to no individualization.” It also illustrated when student behavioral needs were ignored and played out in the child’s academics later.

“Student A was placed at the Hartford Primary-Middle School program in Grade 3, at age 10, with a BIP created at his previous public school. Yet a program review later that year indicated he was performing below grade level due to a lack of access to education based on extended timeouts, raising questions about the degree to which his BIP was reflective of his current needs,” the report said. “In additional, Student A had multiple absences, slept for the whole day on multiple days waking only to eat lunch, and had significant academic delays. … Complex academic/behavioral/disengagement issues persisted from enrollment at High Road for 7 years without his needs being properly addressed.”

Other examples included a student who had 70 timeouts and seven restraints in her first year at High Road and a student with 69 restraints over a 15-month period and no BIP in his record. 

Disengaged students, unclear path forward

Almost 40% of students enrolled at High Road schools had 18 or more absences from school. Over 25% missed over 25 days of instruction, and 10% of all students missed over 50 days, according to the report.

But for students in the classroom, there were several instances where investigators “saw multiple students who were sleeping for prolonged periods during class and students who were completely disengaged from classroom activities.”

“Investigators consistently saw students who were left entirely to themselves during a 30-minute or even 45-minute class period, alone in a cubicle or at a computer, without any or only the briefest of interactions with a teacher or an aide,” the report said.

“During one observation, investigators observed a student sitting in a cubicle starting at the wall. The teacher approached him and spoke to him once during a 45-minute observation. He did not respond and no one else attempted to engage him during class,” the report added. “During an observation at the Fairfield High Road School, several students were observed sleeping, with investigators told that one of the students sleeps all the way up until the last period of the day to participate in science class.”

There were also several issues with progress monitoring and assessments, and inappropriate academic goals, the report said.

“Investigators were told [at the Windham County campus] that students’ progress is monitored daily, but the covering administrator (who was not certified as an administrator) told OCA that ‘students don’t have academic goals; they are here because of behavior,’” the report said.

Beyond academic trouble, the report said, the school did not provide transitional services for older students.

“For older students whose records were reviewed, access to special education until age 22 was terminated without clear transition plans or individualized programs that would provide options for post-secondary education or realistic development of vocational options and experiences, with appropriate social and mental health supports that could lead to successful transitions to adult life.”

Leadership failure and policy recommendations

OCA and DRCT criticized both the state Department of Education and local districts’ efforts to protect the students with disabilities enrolled in High Road schools.

The report said one district’s director of public services “had positive things to say about High Road schools and expressed no concerns” with High Road and that “other programs are worse.” He said there were no red flags around service hours.

However, investigators said that district had 13 students enrolled in High Road programs, and five students missed a combined 306 days of instruction without a BIP in place. 

“Although certain districts indicated they conducted site visits and records review following the letter, the incongruity between the districts’ stated satisfaction with the provision of services and OCA/DRCT investigative findings regarding staffing irregularities, lack of background checking, inadequate records, lack of related service delivery and individualized behavioral intervention plans, and chronic absenteeism is difficult to reconcile,” the report said.

The investigation found that many districts across the state did not conduct site visits and did not ask substantial questions about services or staffing.

“In response to questions about whether the districts conducted any observations of its students enrolled at the schools, only 3/18 districts responded affirmatively,” the report said. “Most districts were unable to provide the ‘names, positions, qualifications and/or any certification of all personnel providing instruction, including special education and related services, to the students while attending High Road.’ One district maintained that CSDE is responsible for ensuring that High Road schools have qualified staff employed.”

At a state level, the report said, the Department of Education had concerns about background checking and inadequate student records, but there were no findings of follow-ups or corrective action.

The report said the state Department of Education did not properly monitor and ensure compliance with federal and state law.

The final pages of the report recommended that state law be amended to “require strengthened CSDE oversight of state-approved private special education programs” and mandate transparency from the education department’s monitoring and enforcement of federal law.

This story was originally published on CT Mirror.

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