Pam Cook was feeling optimistic as she prepared her son, Joey, a bright and energetic boy with autism, for his first day of kindergarten in Walthill.
Cook had met with school staff to put together a plan to make sure his first year of school went smoothly.
They outlined the special education services that he would receive — speech therapy, occupational therapy and extra time with a special education teacher.
But then, Joey’s first day of school was pushed back. Walthill staff told Cook to keep him home for the first six days of kindergarten. They said the school wasn’t ready for him — a fire alarm was scheduled one day that might spook him, his daily schedule hadn’t been finalized.
Once Joey was at school, things appeared to go well. But then, at the end of the school year, Cook received a letter from the district.
It outlined the findings of a Nebraska Department of Education investigation that found Walthill Public School had failed to provide adequate special education services to K-6 students with special needs, like her child.
A state investigation, prompted by a complaint filed by two staff members in November, found Walthill Public School had violated numerous special education regulations. State and federal law requires public schools to provide needed services to students with disabilities.
The tiny northeast Nebraska school district educates mostly low-income children from Native American families. And the district has a higher percentage of students with disabilities than the state as a whole.
Walthill School Board President James Randol said the district has resolved to get things right in the upcoming school year.
“Not one person failed, we all kind of failed,” Randol said. “We weren’t there for them when we should have been. We’re going to make changes and do our best for our students, our teachers, our community.”
The World-Herald obtained copies of the state report, a report from the district’s attorney, who conducted his own inquiry, and other documents from Walthill via a public records request.
Among the findings:
» Students didn’t receive all the extra help they should have.
» Progress reports intended to measure how students were doing were missing from at least five student files.
» A student who was hard of hearing did not have his or her hearing aids checked regularly to ensure that they were still working properly. One teacher claimed that midway through the school year, a teacher trained to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing students had not met with that student at all.
» Not all teachers had access to Individualized Education Programs , the road maps of special education that spell out how teachers, parents and school administrators will work together to ensure that students with disabilities are learning and progressing.
» The district received special education funding, even though not all services were being provided.
» Special testing accommodations — which could include extra time to take a test or a quieter setting — were not provided to special education students in at least two classrooms during an assessment in fall 2017.
“The provision of special education services to special education students at Walthill has been less than perfect,” Steve Williams, an attorney for the district, wrote to the state, responding to the complaint. “While not done with ill-intent, everyone agrees that the school district failed to provide all of the services required.”
Walthill is a small district on the Omaha Indian Reservation that educates roughly 375 kids. In the 2015-16 school year, 95 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
That same year, the elementary and high school appeared on the state’s list of persistently lowest-achieving schools. Walthill has applied for and received millions of dollars in federal grants to spur school improvement.
Students who qualify for special education typically have disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders, behavior disorders, learning disabilities like dyslexia, intellectual disabilities, speech-language delays or hearing impairments.
In the 2016-17 school year, the state counted more than 51,000 kids, from infants to 21-year-olds, who were eligible for special education services in Nebraska.
It’s not clear how many Walthill students were affected. State investigators reviewed special education files for 10 elementary students, but one staffer estimated at least 20 to 25 kids could be involved.
The district’s superintendent, in response to a list of questions submitted by The World-Herald, said the school district can’t share more details because the issue has not been fully resolved and involves confidential student information.
An attorney for the Nebraska Department of Education denied a World-Herald records request and said special education staff would not comment on the investigation.
Seamus Kelly is an Omaha lawyer who represents families across Nebraska who have children with disabilities. He said the situation in Walthill sounded like a systemic problem, given that it involved multiple students across multiple grade levels.
“This sounds like it’s uncommon, it sounds like a more significant issue than your normal, run-of-the-mill parental dispute about ‘I want my kid to get this much therapy and the school will only give this amount,’ ” he said.
The district has offered various reasons for the deficiencies.
In his report, the district’s attorney said a higher-than-anticipated number of special education kindergartners showed up last fall. There was a shortage of qualified special education teachers and substitutes, with school officials conceding that they could find special education substitutes only about 10 percent of the time. Two special education teachers were inexperienced, and another missed at least 15 days of work.
And there was confusion and disagreement among school staff over an inclusion model of teaching that had special education and general education students learning side by side in the classroom. Teachers said they had received no formal training on inclusion and claimed special education students did not necessarily get differentiated or individualized teaching to help them grasp the material.
Special education teachers said general education teachers didn’t provide them with lesson plans or assignments ahead of time.
The state will now require Walthill to follow a corrective action plan.
The district must calculate the hours of missed special education instruction and offer families the option to make those up, something called compensatory services. That time will have to be made up outside regular class time, either before or after school, during study halls or in the summer.
Cook is still waiting on an official accounting of which services and therapies her son did and did not receive during the 2017-18 school year.
“I just don’t get what went so wrong,” she said.
But she said she can’t imagine the wiggly 6-year-old spending more time in school.
“Where do they have a chance to be a kid and play?” she said.
School staff also will receive training from the state Office of Special Education. The state will continue to monitor the district, and a new supervisor employed by Educational Service Unit #1 will oversee special education in Walthill, though she won’t work directly with kids.
Walthill Superintendent Kirk Ahrends, who came from Metropolitan Community College in Omaha and has been on the job less than a month, said between the training and the new supervisor, correcting the mistakes could cost the district upward of $150,000 this year. Walthill has an annual budget of about $6 million.
The violations were front and center at a tense school board meeting on July 9 that revealed the divisions that persist within the district.
Several teachers told the board that there still been no accountability and asked what will happen to the teachers and administrators who they said weren’t doing their jobs. What was state and federal special education funding used for, if not services to help kids? And how will teachers and students be expected to make up hours and hours of missed therapies or instructional time?
“We still have the same staff,” said one teacher, who did not identify herself. “And they were under the gun for an entire year, and we didn’t see changes.”
Ahrends, in an email to The World-Herald, said the district “will continue to evaluate its personnel and take any appropriate action that is required or allowed by state law and school district policy.”
Former Superintendent Ed Stansberry, who led the district for 11 years, left at the end of the school year and will now work as a Native American education consultant for ESU #1. Former special education coordinator Shannon Burgett was hired by the nearby Winnebago district. Burgett could not be reached for comment.
ESU administrator Bill Heimann said Stansberry will not be consulting on special education issues. Under his one-year contract, he’ll work 200 days for a base salary of $80,900, plus a $12,500 stipend that can cover health insurance costs.
In an interview, Stansberry said he didn’t agree with all the findings of the investigation, but said the district has to move on and fix the problems identified. He said students always had a teacher in the classroom, whether they were a certified special education teacher or not.
“It wasn’t like they didn’t have a teacher or anything,” he said. “I don’t feel like the kids were hurt.”
At the board meeting, Ahrends said the issue has been a black eye for the district, which has had trouble filling a guidance counselor position and had only one applicant for an open special education job.
“Our reputation among educators has already been damaged to the bone,” he said.