State probes Guilford special ed program

Sunday, December 14, 2008 6:35 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The school district’s comparatively high rate of suspensions and expulsions for special education students led the state Department of Education to review Guilford’s special education program this year, according to a report from the department.

Although the report did not find major deficiencies in the program, it did show that teachers and administrators in Guilford do not always know or follow required processes for handling disciplinary issues with special education students. It also made a number of recommendations for how the district could improve its program.

Each year, as part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the state department chooses four school districts to participate in “focus monitoring” on its special education program, department spokesman Tom Murphy said. The specific topic of the focus monitoring varies from year to year, and this year it had to do with disciplinary procedures.

After comparing similar school districts, Guilford was chosen for focus monitoring because it had a higher rate of special education students being suspended or expelled, Murphy said.

In the 2004-05 school year, the suspension rate for special education was 8.5 percent, compared to 2.4 percent for the general-education group, according to the state’s report. In 2005-06, suspensions went up for special education, but down for general education, 10.6 percent compared to 1.7 percent. Most of the suspensions and expulsions were at the middle and high school level, the report said.

Murphy said those numbers were higher than other towns in the state with which Guilford was compared, although he did not have the comparison rates for other districts. While Guilford had similar rates of discipline for general-education students in the 2004-05 school year, it suspended or expelled more special education students than districts such as Branford, Madison, Region 17 (Haddam-Killingworth), North Haven and Orange, according to the Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education.

The Guilford Public Schools have about 415 students with disabilities, or nearly 11 percent of the total student population, according to the report.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said he was not aware the district had higher rates for suspension and expulsion of special education students until contacted by the state. He said that one reason Guilford may have high rates is because it uses Saturday detentions, and when students skip the detention — which is not uncommon — they are suspended.

“The vast majority of our students who are suspended are suspended for not going to Saturday detention,” he said. “They might have had a very minor infraction to get a detention, but then if they don’t go to detention, it could turn into a suspension.” He added that he thinks Guilford has a strong special education program overall. Following the state’s recommendations, administrators are developing a discipline-referral form that could be used in all schools, he said.

Board of Education Chairman William Bloss said the board has already reviewed the state’s report and recommendations, which include the creation of a team for each school to implement a discipline code and developing an in-school suspension program.

Bloss said that work on some of the areas is already in place, as Guilford High School Principal Rick Misenti, who is in his second year as principal, has focused on reducing suspensions and expulsions for all students. “Our suspension and detentions rates at all levels, but particularly at the high school, have declined dramatically in the last year,” Bloss said. “I think we were aware generally that the use of suspensions and detentions is not something that we want to overdo, and I think that the administration has really made great strides in cutting them down.”

The state’s report appears to agree, stating, “Both students and staff members reported significant positive changes in students’ behavior with the addition of a new principal at Guilford High School. Students are being held to higher expectations and must be accountable for their actions.”

The state is encouraging the district to focus on “proactive” vs. “reactive” efforts to improve student behavior, a philosophy Bloss said has been put in place.

The report also found that required bureaucratic steps for discipline, including the filing of certain reports for special education students, were not always followed. The state is requiring the district to sponsor professional development for several groups of faculty and staff members on those requirements, according to the report. The district must complete all of the requirements within a year.

“How board policies will be implemented across the district and within each building need(s) to be made explicit to students, parents, teachers and administrators to promote consistent treatment of all students,” the report says.

The district recently began using an online program called PowerSchool that includes communication with parents and information on students’ academic progress, and the report suggested expanding that system to allow more parental involvement.

Bloss said the board will review the state’s recommendations and most likely adopt some of them.

“We are committed to doing not only what the law requires, but what is in the benefit of our town and society as a whole with respect to special education,” he said. “Anybody who’s been paying any attention about what’s happened at the high school over the last year has to concede that the culture and the atmosphere have dramatically improved.”

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