Federal lawsuit claims Austin ISD failed to evaluate hundreds of students with special education needs

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal lawsuit has been filed against the Austin Independent School District on behalf of five families who say they’ve been denied critical special education services as required by law.

The plaintiffs include a four-year-old with autism and expressive language disorder, a six-year-old with sensory processing disorder and ADHD, a five-year-old with suspected anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, a six-year-old with a speech impairment and dyslexia and a 10-year-old with emotional disturbance, learning disabilities and autism.

Disability Rights Texas, also named as a plaintiff in the complaint, alleges the district did not properly evaluate their needs to determine eligibility for special education. The complaint also says this is happening for “at least 800 other students with timely initial special education evaluations and an estimated 1,600 students with timely three-year reevaluations in the past year.”

The Austin Independent School District says they have not been served with the lawsuit at this time. A spokesperson for the district also said it would not respond to pending litigation.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act, parents have the right to request that a school evaluate their child to see if they are eligible to receive special education services. Likewise, a school district must adhere to a strict timeline. It’s informally called the “15-45-30 rule.”

A school district has 15 days to agree or disagree with a parent’s written request to evaluate their child for special education services. Then a 45-day countdown begins to complete the evaluation. Once that is complete, the district has 30 days to hold a meeting to go over the results of the evaluation and develop a plan if the child is found eligible for extra help.

The plaintiffs in this suit claim they still haven’t been provided an evaluation despite providing consent.

“The longer this goes on for these kids, the longer they are being denied services,” said Jarin Schiavolin, the mother to a six-year-old girl with speech impairment and dyslexia. “This is the gateway for everyone to be able to receive therapies or a specific intervention plan. So you are just holding them off from being able to succeed and thrive, and that’s a problem.”

Schiavolin said she has dealt with this problem in the past. Her now ten-year-old son also had trouble receiving an evaluation years ago. When she recognized the same issues occurring with her six-year-old daughter’s evaluation, she said she had proactive conversations with the department to address her concerns. She says despite quality service from the boots-on-the-ground employees she interacted with, AISD administrators would repeatedly share that they were overwhelmed and understaffed and unable to complete timely evaluations.

“I understand you are understaffed and I understand where you are coming from, but that’s actually against the law. That’s a violation of what the federal government is saying the districts have to provide,” Schiavolin said. “If you don’t have enough staff members in-house to be able to handle these kids, then the money needs to go to hiring people that can.”

The families listed in this lawsuit aren’t seeking financial compensation. They just want their kids and all the others to be brought up to speed with where they should be for their age and abilities.

Dustin Rynders, an attorney representing Disabilities Rights Texas, said this is also about holding the powerful accountable, and making sure the district holds up its end of the law.

“It’s very, very important that the district come to the table, work on a plan to improve their services, and come up with a plan to provide compensatory services to every single impacted child in the district,” Rynders said. “It’s just essential that this really important district in our state get their act together to serve students.”

Earlier this month, Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde introduced a new staffing formula for the upcoming school year. It alters staffing plans, district-wide, to provide greater campus support to students with special education needs.

Those new staffing formulas will go into affect Fall 2021.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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