AUSTIN (KXAN) – While Austin Independent School District officials work to overhaul its special education system, middle school student Aaliah Delfierro is starting the 8th grade. Delfierro, 13, is one of the hundreds of students within the district who were not evaluated for special education services on time.

In the 4th grade, at the urging of a teacher who suspected Aaliah might need special education services, her mother requested a special education evaluation from Austin ISD.

According to state law, the district was supposed to complete the evaluation no more than 45 school days later. Instead, Aaliah’s student records show, that the district did not evaluate the student until more than a year later.

The evaluation identified she was diagnosed with ADHD and with specific learning disabilities in seven different areas.

In her individualized education plan, it stated “the student was without services due to a late initial evaluation and could use additional support to accelerate her progress.”

“She was struggling during all that time and not getting any support or services,” Disability Rights Texas attorney Oliva Lee, who represents Delfierro, said.  

The district told KXAN it could not comment on issues related to specific students but confirmed there are still evaluations they received consent for two school years back that have still not been completed. The district said it anticipates finishing those evaluations in September.

The new proposal from TEA

The Texas Education Agency announced in March its recommendation for a conservator to direct the operations of the district’s special education department. The conservator team would have been able to make decisions for all the district’s special education services.

But, on Wednesday, the district said the agency granted a request it made to allow for a less intrusive method of state intervention: a monitor who could observe the actions of the district and report back to the TEA.

The proposal from TEA shows the district could be assigned a monitor if they meet several deadlines related to addressing the backlog of evaluations, including completing ones that have surpassed state and federal deadlines.

“Austin ISD will demonstrate that it has completed evaluations and eligibility determinations for the 111 untimely evaluations in which parental consent for evaluation was obtained prior to the 2022-23 school year and remained outstanding as shown in Austin ISD’s May 2023 monthly report to TEA,” TEA officials wrote in the latest proposal to Austin ISD.

Austin ISD officials said there are a limited number of the 111 evaluations referred to in the proposal that were still in progress and the district anticipates completing all of them within the next month.

The district would also face deadlines for training staff members, considering how to make up for the delayed or late evaluations under the agreement, and developing a strategic plan to address systemic issues related to compliance.

The TEA could also increase the level of state intervention if the district failed to meet deadlines set in the proposal. It would also mean the district could not appeal the state intervention.

The district said Wednesday the school board would consider the proposal and vote in September.

Superintendent Matias Segura said on Wednesday the proposal was a sign that the school district was making steps in the right direction.

“We appreciate that TEA acknowledges our progress toward implementing sustainable, transformative improvements to special education,” Segura said in a statement.

The district said since January it decreased the pending evaluations by 35%, tripled the number of diagnosticians who can perform the evaluations, and added 50 staff members to help with new students needing services.

However, the district has not provided an answer on how many of the currently pending evaluations are overdue.

“I don’t want to get into the details specifically of how many. We have been working and getting through the backlog,” Segura said.

 “We know that the original, I guess, concerns that got us into this, several years ago back in 2021, much of that has cleared. Right now, we are trying to make sure the system has improved to where we don’t ever go back there.”

The history of Austin ISD special education services

The district has been under investigation by the TEA since November 2021 over concerns related to special education. It came after a federal protection and advocacy agency Disability Rights Texas filed a lawsuit against the district alleging it was “failing students with disabilities because its evaluation system is broken” and in violation of state-mandated timelines.

Then in February 2023, court records filed in the ongoing lawsuit revealed the district was behind on evaluating more than 800 students.

In March, the TEA published a report confirming Austin ISD committed 40 violations of special education requirements, including failing to evaluate students suspected of needing special education services within the state and federally mandated timeline.

The report also found the district failed to complete the requirements of multiple corrective action plans that TEA issued.