Tuesday, November 20, 2001

State, lawyer at odds
over Felix compliance

By Pat Omandam

State Attorney General Earl Anzai says the state has "grasped the brass ring" by reaching substantial compliance in providing mental health and education services to special-needs children under the Felix consent decree.

But a Felix plaintiffs' attorney disagrees, adding a state legislative investigative committee looking into the consent decree has "infected" the compliance process and raised legitimate concerns about the state's willingness and ability to meet its remaining obligations.

"An unfortunate casualty of that investigation has been the one superintendent of public education who fully supported the goals and objectives of the consent decree and contributed enormously to the progress toward compliance that has been achieved over the past three years," attorney Shelby Floyd said referring to Paul LeMahieu.

"The impact of this appears to be to embolden those DOE employees who prefer to return to their old way of doing business, and to diminish the willingness of the monitor to take on difficult issues of compliance," she said.

Anzai and Floyd responded yesterday to the latest quarterly status report issued in early November by the Felix court monitor Ivor Groves. The report, which covers the period of Sept. 7 to Nov. 1, did not include a recommendation for federal receivership of the state's special-education program but still says the state has some issues to meet before being released from the order.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra will hold a hearing Nov. 30 to decide whether a receiver should be appointed.

In the state's response as defendant, Anzai said yesterday the departments of Health and Education have made overwhelming progress and have taken all reasonable steps in their power to develop a self-sustaining system of care necessary to comply with the court order.

"Rest assured, compliance does not mean that the departments' resolve to comply with the law will end," Anzai said. "Essential work will be continued in order to be effective and efficient."

Key compliance benchmarks set in September were:

>> Having two-thirds of the school complexes score 85 percent or higher in service testing reviews for school-based and coordinated services.

>> Having the computerized Integrated Special Education system up and running.

>> Meeting the staffing requirements of 85 percent licensed or trained special- education teachers in the classrooms.

Groves said in his report that state certification of special-education teachers was at 75 percent, but Anzai argued it has surpassed that threshold. He said an extraordinary effort has been made to recruit and retain special-education teachers.

Currently, there are 1,719 qualified special-education teachers out of the 1,971.5 allocated to the public schools. That is an 87.1 percent compliance level, he said.

But Floyd argues the state has not met that benchmark, and doubts another meeting with the state, as Groves recommended, could result in a new negotiated benchmark.

Meanwhile, Floyd also said the long-awaited ISPED computerized information system is neither fully functional nor accessible and is not yet serving any if its purposes.

She is skeptical giving the state an additional 60 days to bring the database online will be enough.

She said the need for a computerized system to gather and provide current and consistent information about special-needs children among all service providers and state agencies was a key reason for the Felix lawsuit.

"Plaintiffs simply cannot assume that in another 60 days ISPED finally will provide the data and serve the needs of the system of care in the manner that it was intended to," said Floyd, who added the state cannot access the system data.

The state, however, said all schools, state offices, Family Guidance Centers and other users can access the system -- which now has improved response times -- from any computer with the right software and Internet access. Anzai said a majority of student services coordinators, special-education teachers and counselors have begun training on the system, which required information to be current at the start of the current school year.

The court order stems from a lawsuit filed in 1993 by Jennifer Felix, a special-needs student who alleged the state violated federal law for failing to provide appropriate mental health and educational services to disabled children.

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