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Feds Hear Stories of Students Denied Special Education in Texas Schools 

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Autistic children locked in padded, sound-proof cells. Dyslexic kids given a computer program instead of a reading tutor. Children with severe speech impediments called "cute" by school officials, and then denied therapy. Suicide attempts in a 4th grade classroom called "disruptive."

These are just a handful of the hundreds of stories parents and youth advocates shared with U.S. Department of Education staffers over the past two weeks. The feds had come to Texas to hold five 'listening sessions' across the state with the public, in hopes of better understanding how the Texas Education Agency handles special education programming — an area recently under fire for potentially denying thousands of eligible kids.

What they found only cemented their suspicions: Hundreds of children with special needs have been denied crucial education and support from the state.

"I want... school districts to fight over the child with special needs," said Kevin O'Bryan, a father of a child with down's syndrome, who spoke at the Austin session. He's struggled to get his daughter the education she needs through TEA. "Let's put money out there to follow the child, instead of the child following the money."

Some speakers travelled over 300 miles to testify, sharing what seemed to be normalized stories of kids with well-documented developmental issues being turned away from special education programs again and again. Those who couldn't attend shared more than 250 lengthy stories on a website created by the Department of Education.

One mother wrote that after being told repeatedly that her daughter would "mature out" of her developmental learning issues and turned away from the special education programs, she eventually pulled her daughter out in 3rd grade to be homeschooled. Shortly after, she got a doctor's confirmation that her daughter was autistic. But it was too late, she wrote in a post.

"Because of her late diagnosis, she has missed out on crucial therapy and interventions that could have significantly positively impacted her life and her future."

This listening tour was inspired by an in-depth investigation the Houston Chronicle published in September, revealing the extreme limits Texas Education Agency officials had placed on public school's special education programs. The Chronicle reported that the TEA had stuck what was basically an 8.5 percent cap on special education enrollment across the state — far below a national average of 13 percent. It appeared more than 250,000 students had been denied critical school services, like speech therapy, counseling, and private tutoring.

This would make Texas the only state in the country with a limit to its special education program, a decision that seems clearly out of line with federal law. Yet the TEA has maintained that it set no special ed enrollment cap for local school district, and has instead even blamed districts for "erroneously" interpreting the state's rules.

These listening sessions may change their tune.

“A lot of emotion, parents have gone through tremendous struggles here,” Gregg Corr, a director in the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs said after the Houston session. “There certainly seem to be some issues that we need to look into further.”

The Chronicle investigation also found that students living in districts with poorer, non-white, and non-English-speaking residents had even fewer opportunities to get the special education they needed In the Rio Grande Valley, the paper reported, only 7.5 percent of students are receiving special education.

"What I've found is that brown and black children and ESL children are at particular risk," said Dianna Pharr, an attorney and advocate for children's rights in central Texas. "They need exit options before the age 10, when schools call the police and press felony charges and put them into the school to prison pipeline."

According to a new report on children within Texas' public school system who are arrested by school officers while on campus — and often sent to state juvenile detention centers — youth with disabilities experience twice as many arrests as their representation in the student body.

Officials within the TEA didn't reply to our request for comment on the sessions, instead directing us to the feds. In Austin, Corr said he's planning to present every story he's collected to department officials in Washington, D.C.

"We will determine what appropriate actions are necessary, if any, after that,” Corr said.

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