Monday, February 25, 2002

State of Hawaii

Felix decree
deadline looms

Concerns linger that some schools
will not satisfy the mandates on time

By Crystal Kua

The nearly 10-year odyssey of trying to bring Hawaii's special-education system into compliance with federal law is winding down with a crucial court-imposed deadline slated for next month.

"Right now, I am optimistic that they are going to be at least in substantial compliance. That has a fairly reasonable probability of being true," said Ivor Groves, appointed by the federal court to monitor the state's progress in meeting benchmarks set out in the Felix consent decree.

But Groves and others also acknowledge that not every school in the state will satisfy the necessary mandates on time, meaning some schools may have to take corrective action past the March 31 deadline.

"It is not inconceivable that we could end up with (school) complexes that aren't quite there," Groves said this past week.

That realization, along with other lingering challenges in providing educational and mental health services to special-needs students, leave some wondering whether being deemed "in compliance" really means the schools are in compliance.

"They are, in actuality, not in compliance," contends parent advocate Naomi Grossman. "It's only paper compliance."

Schools in Waianae and on Lanai have not passed service testing, the assessment Groves uses to determine if a high school and its feeder schools meet requirements.

Meanwhile, schools in Mililani have passed service testing and are considered in provisional compliance, but the complex faltered on its presentation to win approval for full compliance.

"We have to work on that," Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said. "We have very specific guidelines for complexes having difficulty."

This week the Molokai school complex will be the last to undergo service testing.

Besides seeing that schools meet the criteria, the Department of Education also has to work on systemwide benchmarks, including having 90 percent of special-education teachers in the state certified, improving reading proficiency and seeing that the Integrated Special Education computerized information system is running.

While Groves makes recommendations to the court on what actions to take in light of the state's progress, he said U.S. District Judge David Ezra makes the final decision on compliance.

"I think the court is going to have to consider the realities everyone is working under," Groves said.

Robert Campbell, who oversees compliance issues for the DOE, said: "I would say the confidence is good. We're actually working on the next phase to show that this ... is not a fluke."

A 1993 lawsuit filed for special-needs student Jennifer Felix alleged the state was violating federal law for failing to provide appropriate mental health and educational services to disabled children. The lawsuit led to the state consenting to changes with the 1994 consent decree, which gave the state six years to improve the delivery of services and be in line with federal law.

After missing initial deadlines and being held in contempt, the state -- mainly through the Education and Health departments -- must show that it can fulfill the remaining requirements by March 31.

Groves said the state has come a long way, but while a handful of school complexes will still need to overcome difficulties, increased oversight will not be needed with the majority of schools, which will be able to move past compliance and work on how to maintain the gains that have been made.

"All kids are getting services in a much more consistent fashion than they were historically, and I think kids are getting identified. Schools have more tools and understanding on how to respond to these kids," Groves said.

Groves said his role will diminish once compliance is reached. The next step would then be for the parties to agree on a sustainability plan, which he believes should be worked out without him.

Grossman, however, believes that once the consent decree is behind, more litigation could arise from parents unhappy with what is in place.

Grossman, who assists parents in learning about their rights during meetings to formulate their children's individualized educational programs, said she is receiving more requests from parents who ask her to sit in on these meetings.

"There are too many parents who believe they are being railroaded," Grossman said.

And, she said, problems have not been erased totally.

"We're having problems getting a child identified as Felix," Grossman said. "Parents don't know they have rights, and they don't understand the special-education laws."

Hamamoto and Campbell both acknowledge complaints by parents and say these complaints are a good indicator of how the system is working.

"Complaints are there. However, you listen to the complaints, analyze the complaints and determine whether it's a system's issue or an individual complaint," Hamamoto said.

Groves said the complaints by parents are down and are more specific to what parents believe their children should receive in services.

State Department of Education

E-mail to City Desk


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