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State reprimands WCSD for missing deadline to change special education policy

State officials are telling the Washoe County School District it must change the way it handles Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, for special needs students. Reno Public Radio's Michelle Bliss reports that some funding for the district could be at stake if the issue is not addressed swiftly.

Here's what happened: A little over a year ago, the state investigated a complaint from parent Larry Dailey who says his daughter did not receive all of the services listed in her IEP. He says one of those services was a "peer buddy," someone to help her interact with classmates and stay on top of assignments.

"That's not expensive," Dailey says. "That's not something that takes a lot of tax dollars. That's simply making sure that the kid sits next to somebody she can get help from in every class, and in doing that, you help a kid who has social needs issues."

When the investigation was completed, the state found that Dailey's daughter was denied some of her IEP services and officials told the district it had to make changes. One of those changes was to devise an IEP checklist for teachers to follow so that all student needs are addressed and no services are overlooked.

Frank Selvaggio is executive director of student support services for the district and says his staff did start implementing a checklist.

"What did not occur is, in the deadline set by the state, there's about 2,000 people we need to train and we did not meet that deadline to train all of them," Selvaggio says.

Because the district missed that deadline, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga recently wrote them a letter saying they must submit a plan to correct the problem or risk losing federal funding. The district has submitted that plan, and it's also hired a compliance officer to respond to parental complaints.

The district handles 8,400 IEPs each year and Selvaggio says that, unfortunately, some slip ups are bound to happen. Since 2012, the state has given the district six corrective action plans based on its investigations of special education complaints. Selvaggio says it's important to recognize that five of those six plans have been enacted successfully.

"This is one portion of a larger corrective action plan of which we met all components but this one part," he explains. "And that's not to excuse the fact that the training did not occur because that's an issue that we've got to clean up."

Larry Dailey, the father who filed the original complaint, says this issue is not just about a missed deadline and, instead, illustrates a larger, institutional problem regarding how special needs students are educated in Washoe County.

"Systemic change happens slowly," Dailey explains. "Unfortunately, my child and the other children need help now, so, ideally, I guess I would like a way to see the parents of kids who have disabilities to be able to come together, compare our stories, and let the district know what it needs to do now to help those children."

Despite their differences of opinion, this is where Dailey, the father, and Selvaggio with the district come together--they both agree that more communication between educators and the parents of special needs students is necessary to affect change moving forward. That's why both parties are helping form a task force to get that conversation started.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
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