Fairfax Co. school board outlines plan to address disparities in special education suspensions

The Fairfax County School Board is sketching its next steps after a new report shows that students with disabilities in Virginia’s largest school system are disproportionately suspended, when compared to their peers without disabilities.

A two-year review of Fairfax County Public Schools’ special education program found that between 2016 and 2019, special educations students were at higher risk of being expelled or suspended for more than 10 days in a school year when compared with the general student population. The report, by the American Institutes for Research didn’t evaluate the programs during the pandemic.

“I think parents are very disappointed, angry, scared — I think those are all fair things to say,” said AIR senior researcher Lindsey Hayes, in presenting the findings to the school board.

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The report also included positive findings, such as that the school system has “robust division-level leadership and infrastructure for special education services,” and that parents are generally satisfied with opportunities for academic and social inclusion for their children.

However, researchers found the school system could do a better job communicating with parents while developing, implementing, and then tracking a student’s individualized education program, or IEP.

Hayes said doing so “can help proactively reduce conflict between families and schools.”

“It can help improve the quality of the of the individualized education program and make sure that students are experiencing success in their setting,” she said, in paraphrasing a report finding.

School board members agreed that improving communication between parents and schools would be helpful.

“Virtually all of my casework, involving special education as a board member deals with helping families access what their IEPs say they deserve — all of it,” said board member Karl Frisch.

Board member Melanie Meren noted that she had to scroll through several pages on the school system’s web resource for the special education program before getting to a core message: “I still couldn’t find the thing that said, ‘Hey, you might be scared, you might be in denial, you might not want these services for your kids.’ I think that’s the communication piece.”

Frisch asked researchers how long they believed it would take to fully implement the suggestions in the report. He said any systematic change effort requires at least three years.

The review will be used to help the county develop a new wide-ranging plan for special education students, that the school board hopes to finalize in February 2023.

Board member Megan McLaughlin said she knows the leaders in the special education program are committed to continuous improvement.

“I really appreciate the individuals in our school district who have worked really hard to serve kids,” she said.

“This hard. This is painful. But, I do believe that this is going to be our road map to the success that we promise for each and every student.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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