For years, Cristen Reat has hoped her son Vincent could learn to be more independent, make some friends, have more social interaction– maybe even get a part time job one day.
None of that’s guaranteed for Vincent. He has a complicated set of disabilities, including Down Syndrome, autism, and other sensory issues and visual impairments that make it hard for him to process his physical environment.
That’s why in the fall of 2018, Reat started the process to transfer Vincent, then 15, from a small private program geared towards children with autism to the Houston Independent School District.
Reat works at a nonprofit dedicated to people with special needs and had observed years of drama at the state and local levels. That included the revelation — and the fallout — over the state’s arbitrary 8.5% cap on special ed services for Texas children with disabilities.
“We thought, ‘Okay, you know, HISD has a new special education director. TEA has lifted the cap, surely things are better,” she said.
So the family set up a meeting with HISD. And that’s when she said things started to go downhill.
“Vincent has never received any services from HISD after two years,” Reat said in an interview last fall.
That’s not uncommon, according to special ed advocate Jackie Cross-Ecford. She’s helped families navigate school systems for 25 years. Before becoming a professional, she advocated for her own son’s education.
“Any time a student is coming from the outside, it is just impossible to get an evaluation that is full, comprehensive and on time,” Cross-Ecford said.
One of her clients is the Reat family. Cross-Ecford declined to comment on their case, but she spoke generally about challenges she’s seen with special education in HISD over the years.
One, she said, is a lack of consistent leadership. Another is confusion over a lack of standard policies.
“There’s just no organized system of procedures that I’ve seen that can be consistently applied from student to student to provide services,” Cross-Ecford said.
She urges parents to recognize they’re “not without power.”
“You just have to be willing to exercise that power by saying ‘no’ to an inadequate program or ‘no’ to insufficient services,” Cross-Ecford said. “And I know it’s not easy.”
That’s why, she said, procedural safeguards are so important, and for parents to understand them.
Yet, in more than a dozen meetings she’s had with various families and HISD administrators during the pandemic, she said that each one had its own approach to documenting and identifying services.
“Even the paperwork is different from table to table,” she said.
A scathing report from investigators with the Texas Education Agency backs up that assessment.
Last fall, the agency found that failures in HISD special ed had become “institutionalized.”
“For at least a decade, HISD has been fully aware of its deficiencies, and while anecdotes of progress appear in places, the same deficiencies repeatedly appear for at least the last generation of students served by the District,” Adam Benthall, Director of Special Investigations, wrote in the Sept. 29, 2019 report.
That followed other critical evaluations of HISD’s special ed services by outside consultants, including a 10-month review by the American Institutes for Research.
Its number one finding: “There is confusion about, and inconsistent implementation of, processes related to intervention and special education identification.”
When the state’s investigation was released, HISD disagreed with the data collection and said that administrators were “disappointed with the outcome of the investigation and believe it is factually and legally incorrect.”
But now, the Texas Education Agency has decided to step in.
Deputy education commissioner Jeff Cottrill introduced two new state conservators to the Houston school board at their Jan. 7 meeting. Cottrill gave out a long list of their responsibilities, starting with improving how the district identifies children with disabilities and addressing inconsistent processes.
In a statement, HISD said the district will “work collaboratively with the conservators.”
Its identification of students with disabilities still lags behind national statistics. In 2019, HISD enrolled 7.4% percent of its 209,000 students in special education, compared to 7.2% in 2016, according to state data. That’s half the national average of 14%.
Not all Houston families are convinced this state intervention will make much of a difference, because of Texas’ own troubled track record with special ed.
In fact, TEA is still struggling to meet a 2018 federal order, according to the feds, though the agency maintains it has made progress.
The U.S. Department of Education recently demanded more proof from the TEA that it’s improving access for families after years of its cap on services.
Among those skeptical parents: Cristen Reat.
“In my heart, I know something has to change,” she said. “But I honestly think it’s going to take just years and years and years to correct anything to provide what students with disabilities deserve.”
For her own family, it took two years, legal action and multiple rounds of mediation to finally get her son Vincent services everyone could agree on.
During that period, Reat said one of the biggest holdups was where Vincent would learn.
She said HISD proposed that he join a large classroom for students with wide-ranging disabilities at one of the district’s largest high schools.
But Reat felt that would be a harsh transition for a teenager who hadn’t been in a formal classroom in years. So his family advocated for a slower integration and a smaller class.
While they were in dispute over his placement, Reat said that HISD withheld all services, including vision therapy and lessons on how to use a cane to navigate spaces.
“It was basically like blackmail,” she said.
Another sticking point: What services and how much of them did HISD owe Vincent for the delay in enrolling him, known as “compensatory services.”
Now, the Houston district has promised to set up an educational fund and provide back-owed therapy hours to Vincent, under a settlement approved by the HISD board last December.
In a statement, HISD told Houston Public Media they couldn’t comment on any individual cases due to privacy restrictions.
However, the district said families “seeking special education services for their children may do so by contacting administrators at their local campus or the school district offices.”
While the settlement brings some relief, Reat worries about families who don’t have the resources to file legal action.
And she thinks about what Vincent lost during those two years — time to develop skills he needs to build an independent life.
“Now at 17, I don’t know if that’s possible,” Reat said.