WILLIAMSBURG COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - The Williamsburg County School District must make major changes to address "substantial violations" in its special needs program, the South Carolina Department of Education says.
A letter from the state Department of Education highlights "systemic, longstanding, uncorrected noncompliance" and informs the district that the state is redirecting 25 percent of WCSD's IDEA funds to address the problems.
IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal funding is supposed to help ensure students with disabilities are getting an appropriate education.
"The idea behind it is that all students should have access to the general ed curriculum," said Peter Keup, Team Lead of Oversight and Assistance in the Office of Special Education services at the SCDE.
Keup and his team at the state level use data and school visits to make sure districts are complying with federal IDEA rules so they continue to receive federal gr ant money.
He says they visit each county every six years. Two years ago, they noticed problems in Williamsburg County School's special needs department.
"In Williamsburg, there's not often certified teachers in the right areas," he said. "We had found some systemic issues with respect to their programs for students with disabilities."
The major problems listed in the letter included a failure to:
- Educate students in the least restrictive environment (make sure they are not isolated and included with other students at the school when possible)
- Ensure special needs students were getting the same length of school say as their non-disabled peers
- Provide technology and adaptive supplies in the classroom
- Involve students in Physical Education, even if it needs to be adapted for them
- Properly create Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) and review them with parents
Keup said, "We gave them a year to make those corrections. They did not correct within a year."
Which is why the letter, dated August 23 of this year, was sent to Williamsburg Schools Superintendent Carrie Brock. It explains why the state is redirecting $700,000 of their $3 million funding to specifically fix the problems outlined.
The school system is not losing any funding at this point; they are being told directly how to spend part of it.
She declined multiple requests for an interview, but in a memo posted online to parents Brock wrote, "The District takes its responsibility to educate all students, including students with disabilities very seriously and will continue to work cooperatively with the SCDE to resolve these matters." The District was required by the state to post the letter online. There are currently 691 students in WCSD in special education programs, according to WCSD spokesperson Bonnie King.
Susie Phillips is one mom who's been advocating for changes in the WCSD special needs program. She lives in Columbia and her son lives in a treatment facility in Williamsburg County called Willowglen Academy (WGA).
Some Willowglen students have disabilities or behavioral issues. They attend WCSD schools like any other county students. There are currently 34 students in the district attending school from Willowglen.
Phillips visits at least once a week and is very involved in making sure her son getting the best education possible. She described the types of changes she looks forward to seeing.
"Supplies they may need in the classroom depending on their disability. Could be sensory items. Obviously, assistive technology. Computer access. Just technology for children who maybe can't talk. Smart boards. Anything to help them learn and get on an even playing field with a typical child."
In a statement to the media, Superintendent Brock said she is working with the SCDE and Willowglen Academy to address the compliance issues in the district. She said they are working on a proposed budget to the state and addressing staffing needs such as hiring an occupational therapist.
The SCDE emphasized in its letter, "If the district fails to comply with these actions by December 31, 2016, the SCDE will increase its sanctions of the district, which may include but not be limited to, withholding IDEA and/or other federal funds, recovery of federal funds, and/or determining that the district is not eligible for federal awards."
"It needs to happen. It has to happen. Really, it's the law," Phillips said.
Live 5 News has requested documentation breaking down WCSD previous years' expenditures of IDEA gr ant money.