AUSTIN (KXAN) — Madalyn Betts has spent most of her life in special education classrooms, working through the challenges of having dyslexia, a speech impairment, and being on the autism spectrum. 

At 12, her aunt passed from a medical condition, and her grandmother died from coronavirus during the pandemic. Their deaths had a huge impact on Maddie. Her psychologist diagnosed her with social phobia and depression. She stopped going to Covington Middle School. Instead, she learned from her house as part of the Austin Independent School District homebound program. 

“Her anxiety popped up, and she was almost agoraphobic about going out,” Maddie’s mom Donna Betts said. 

From home, the school’s special education services were inconsistent. State investigators with the Texas Education Agency found when Maddie was in seventh grade, the district violated special education requirements when it came to her education. She was promised a speech therapist and counselor. But those services were not consistently provided, according to state records. 

Donna Betts checks on Maddie in her room. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Donna Betts checks on Maddie in her room. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

In August, when the new school year started, Maddie, now 15, and her mom expected her to begin homebound instruction again. But her lessons did not start on the first day of school. 

“She still has received no services since the beginning of school,” Donna Betts said. “She has been enrolled but has not received anything so far.”

The district was already more than a month into the school year when we interviewed Maddie’s mom. Email records show three separate meetings were scheduled to determine the plan for the school year. One of them was canceled after the district mistakenly unenrolled her from school. 

“I feel angry. I am very angry,” Donna said. “I am sorry for Maddie.”

            Donna Betts stands outside Austin Independent School District headquarters (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Donna Betts stands outside Austin Independent School District headquarters (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

The school district declined to comment on Maddie’s case. But, in an interview, the head of Austin ISD’s special education program Dr. Dru McGovern-Robinett answered about cases where the homebound program is involved.

“There are some hoops that are associated with the homebound process because those students are also accounted for in our attendance accounting as a district, and so we have to have a timely notice from a medical provider, and that’s tough on a parent,” Robinett said.  “I don’t know the specifics of this particular case in that unique way, but I do know that those are the occasional limitations that come into place and are part of the steps that must be taken.”

Maddie has been in the homebound program since 2021. Records show Maddie’s doctors signed the most recent homebound forms in April and again at the end of August.

“I think they are pushing on every technicality,” Donna said. “Every little thing they can find to hold it up.”

The wait

The rehabilitation of the special education program at Austin ISD has been called priority 1A by school officials and board members since the newest trustees took office in January. At the time, the district had exceeded the federal timeline to evaluate more than 1,700 kids suspected of needing special education services. Since then, the district has evaluated more than half of those students, according to its numbers. 

The federal government requires school districts to evaluate students within 45 school days of getting parental consent. TEA investigators found the district repeatedly failed to do this on time. The investigation found that sometimes special education officials delayed evaluating students for nine months.

But the problems within the district’s special education program go beyond monthslong delays in evaluating students. Separately, once the evaluation is done, Texas law requires school districts to create an individualized education plan, or IEP, to help students with learning disabilities. Districts must devise each plan within 30 calendar days of evaluating a student. Students like Maddie also need updated IEPs for when their needs change or as they move to higher grade levels.

Data from the Texas Education Agency, obtained by KXAN, shows more than 400 students who last school year were flagged as potentially needing special education services were still waiting for the district to provide that help at the start of September. It was weeks into the new school year. The district already knew they qualified for the services. ­­­­

Another 340 kids whose parents consented to their kids being evaluated last school year were also waiting to be evaluated and to have the district develop a plan for services in the new school year.

At the time, there were also another 30 students for whom the district had parental consent to evaluate in the 2021-22 school year who were still waiting for special education staffers to create a plan and provide services. It had been nearly two years since they were flagged as potentially needing help.

The district said on Oct. 19 it still had 239 kids left from the previous school year waiting for their individualized education plan and for services to start. At the time, the district was already overdue to provide those services to 35% of those kids.

The students impacted are often in school but learning without services that could help them grow, like reading interventions, small groups for dyslexia, and speech therapy.

According to the agreement between the state and Austin ISD, district officials have until January 2024 to finish evaluating and creating education plans for all students who had parental consent provided last school year.

“Is it good enough yet? No, it’s never going to be good enough until we have fulfilled the timelines and the appropriate delivery of services for our students in our families, as expected,” McGovern-Robinett said. 

“What I can assure you is that [for] any and all students that may have had a delay in either part of the process there will be the convening as quickly as possible for that [student] and there will be a full discussion around compensatory services, if appropriate for that student,” McGovern-Robinett said.

Compensatory services, according to University of Texas-Austin’s College of Education Associate Professor David DeMatthews, are an attempt to make up for learning loss and could be delivered in additional hours of education or in funds that can be used toward hiring outside services, like tutoring or counselors. 

“Just missing a year of services and paying them back with a year of services later on – that may not make up for all of the damage that has been done to a variety of factors,” DeMatthews said. “If a child’s not getting the support and services that they need early on, those problems only compound; they get worse, and they get worse – and it gets harder to understand what’s really going on there.”

The district could not provide the total number of students who have received compensatory services since 2019. In response to our records request, Austin ISD officials said, “Every service is individualized for the student and based on their IEP, therefore, services are varied.” But officials said 254 students attended its 2023 summer compensatory services program. 231 students participated in the district’s extended summer year program. 

Past, present, moving forward

McGovern-Robinett took over as the head of the district’s special education program in May 2022. She believes multiple factors put Austin ISD, the largest school district in Central Texas, in a yearslong backlog and in an agreement with the state that could lead to even harsher sanctions for the district.

“There’s been a shortage of individuals who can conduct evaluations for students – number one. The pandemic was put into the mix of that, and so there was a delay in completing evaluations for students. Our state had a context for a period of time where there was a substantial reduction in the identification of students with disabilities,” McGovern-Robinett said.

The district had also laid off the staff who conducted special education evaluations in the summer of 2021, and according to McGovern, before her tenure, there was no centralized system for teachers to request students to be evaluated. Austin ISD trustees have publicly commented on being unable to track how behind they were on evaluations before the new board focused the administration on the special education backlog.

“It was very unclear to folks where the single entry point was – yes. And so, people were using any and all methods to be able to do that,” McGovern said. “A number of our folks who have come into leadership have been a part of trying to be a solution forward facing for the future.”

The Texas Education Agency has also faced criticism and sanctions from the federal government over its handling of special education. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education found the agency failed to make sure districts were identifying all the children needing special education services. Specifically, the federal report took issue with a benchmark TEA was monitoring across districts.

        Austin Independent School District Associate Superintedent of Special Education Dr. Dru McGovern-Robinett(KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Austin Independent School District Associate Superintedent of Special Education Dr. Dru McGovern-Robinett(KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Before 2017, when a school district had more than 8.5% of its students identified as needing special education services – it would prompt the state to look further into the district, asking for additional paperwork to make sense of its special education population.

TEA officials admit the policy had a chilling effect on the number of students districts identified as needing help. Following a Houston Chronicle investigation and a federal probe, the agency got rid of the policy, and the legislature banned any similar policy in 2019. In recent years, the state legislature has also faced repeated calls to increase the funding to special education programs across the state.

Still, state data shows most school districts comply with the federal requirements around evaluating children who might need the help of a special education program. Eighty-one percent of school districts and public charter schools reported evaluating 100% of their students on time during the 2022-23 school year, according to TEA data. Meanwhile, Austin ISD is among more than 200 districts and charters that were non-compliant.

A new year for Maddie

At the end of September, Donna and the team assigned to help Maddie met to figure out the plan for the rest of the school year. Schools had been in session for a month and six days. Maddie was set to start homebound classes again two weeks later – the first week of October.

        Donna Betts looks at her daughter, Maddie, inside their kitchen. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Donna Betts looks at her daughter, Maddie, inside their kitchen. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

According to her IEP, the plan established which version of the STAAR exam she would take and how often her homebound instructor and speech therapist would visit and laid out the plan to gradually phase the 15-year-old back to in-person classes at Crockett High School.

The district did not discuss providing compensatory services to Maddie for the time she lost this school year. The report said it could be discussed later if needed.

“It’s a huge injustice, and there are a lot of unknowns at this point now. Are they going to be able to catch her up in time?” Donna said. “What is important is that she gets the instruction here and that they teach her that school is going to be a safe place for her.”

Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Photographer Chris Nelson, Graphic Artist Christina Staggs, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, and Executive Producer Laney Valian contributed to this report.