PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A trio of state senators is calling for special education reform following a Target 12 investigation that revealed dozens of young children with special needs aren’t receiving education in Providence.
Sens. Sandra Cano, Hanna Gallo and Alana DiMario issued a joint statement Friday, demanding that the General Assembly enact legislation to bring “significant changes” to how individualized education programs, or IEPs, are developed and provided to students.
IEPs are educational plans crafted by school officials and parents as blueprints for how students with special needs will be supported in the public schools system.
The call for action came one day after a Target 12 report revealed that at least 34 special needs students in Providence have gone for months without receiving the educational support required by their IEPs under federal law. State and local education officials blame the problem on an inability to hire qualified teachers to provide the necessary services.
“After I saw the article, I just feel that it’s super unacceptable,” Cano, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, told Target 12 Friday. “Obviously, we’ve been hearing from a lot of parents that are bringing the concern, but it’s never a good practice to leave students or anyone without the education they deserve.”
DiMario has already submitted legislation that would change how IEPs are handled at the district level, such as requiring parental consent for making an initial placement of a student into a special-education program. It would also enshrine into law a 2018 court decision that gives students the right to receive special education services until 22 years old, up from the previous threshold of age 21.
Cano’s committee held a hearing Wednesday where the lawmakers said they heard from several concerned and frustrated parents who are having trouble getting specialized educational services for their children.
“Some of our state’s most vulnerable children are being failed, and it is not right or fair,” DiMario said in a statement. “The bill I introduced seeks to implement much-needed reform in the IEP process, but we also have to ensure that our schools have the necessary resources to care for all children. These children are running out of time and no adult should rest until these students are provided with the vital educational services that they require.”
Gallo, who is a speech pathologist, said she’s heartbroken for the children who are not receiving the support they need. She warned that “every single day of specialized education that is missed by these children poses a significant risk of exacerbating their issues,” a concern that’s echoed by advocates.
“Understaffing should never be an excuse for leaving children behind in the developmental process,” she said in a statement. “Attracting specialized early educators is a long-term process, and the Senate has introduced several bills in the past to address this very serious issue. Solving the problem of being unable to recruit and retain specialized educators has been, and will continue to be, a top priority for the Senate.”
Target 12 interviewed multiple Providence parents whose children are not receiving educational support, despite the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Junie-Fed Michel, a Providence mother, received an IEP last fall for her son, Juju, who was supposed to start school in November. Four months later, he hasn’t received any education. He remains nonverbal and significantly behind his peers at age three-and-a-half.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has called the issue “terrible” and blamed it on a staffing shortage in the state-controlled school district. Currently, Providence has two empty classrooms ready to be filled by early childhood special education students, Infante-Green said, but there are no teachers and support personnel to staff them.
“It’s a bad situation,” she said, acknowledging the district is “having trouble meeting the law.”
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.