D.C. schools officials have not been making sure that employees at private schools where special education students are sent pass criminal background checks, despite requiring its own public school staff to do so, according to an audit by the D.C. inspector general.
"This condition jeopardizes the welfare of District students and wards with disabilities," Charles Willoughby wrote in a new report describing various issues with the District's nonpublic tuition program in 2009. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the city must pay to send a special education student to a private school if his or her needs can't be met at public schools.
Although the District improved its monitoring of students in private placements in 2010, schools officials relied on "assurances" from private schools that they maintained personnel records containing background checks on employees who worked directly with children.
In response to Willoughby's concerns, State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley said her agency would begin requiring copies of the background checks during site visits this fall.
"It's necessary, because in the world we live in now, you can't go on word alone," said Yetta Myrick, president of DC Autism Parents and the mother of a third-grader in a private placement. "If it's not in writing, it does not exist."
About 1,700 students are in the private placement program, at an annual cost of $109 million to the city.
The inspector general also found that about one-quarter of students in private placements did not have a complete or current Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, which identifies a student's disability and provides a road map and goals for the child's classroom time, and which is legally required.
It's a problem the District has been struggling with for years: In summer 2007, there was a backlog of nearly 1,000 court orders to place students in special education programs. By August 2010, more than 400 students had incomplete evaluations for their IEPs. Mahaley told Willoughby that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had made more progress since the audit.
Willoughby also dinged the OSSE for sending hundreds of students to 31 schools that didn't have a Certificate of Approval. But when a hearing officer chooses a student's school -- which happens when the District and a parent disagree over where a child should be educated -- the school doesn't need to have the certificate. A spokesman for Mahaley was unable to determine Wednesday how many schools fell into that category.