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Denver: More than 1,000 disabled students didn't get speech therapy

Mar 29, 2023, Chalkbeat: Denver failed to provide speech therapy to more than 1,000 young students, state decision says
More than 1,000 young Denver students with disabilities missed all or some of their legally required speech therapy recently due to staffing shortages, according to a state decision that found Denver Public Schools in violation of federal requirements.

The March 18 decision was in response to a complaint filed with the Colorado Department of Education by the unnamed family of a 6-year-old boy.

The boy, who is in kindergarten, has a developmental delay and is nonverbal, the decision says. He uses an augmentative and alternative communication device, or AAC, to communicate by pushing buttons that convey words or phrases.

The boy’s special education plan required he receive 24 hours of therapy from a speech language pathologist between August and February: 12 hours inside the classroom and 12 hours outside the classroom, where there are fewer distractions.

But his Denver elementary school didn’t have a speech language pathologist at all during that time, the decision from the state education department says. After the school reached out for help, a district-level speech language pathologist provided the kindergartener with three hours of therapy in January and February. But those services fell far short of what his plan required.

The problem is widespread. A state complaints officer found that 28 Denver elementary schools did not have speech language pathologists for some period of time between January 2022 and now. Many of the shortages were lengthy. Thirteen elementary schools were without a speech language pathologist for at least one full semester this school year, the decision says.

Parents and therapists have been complaining about the problem to the school board all year. …

Karen Burton told the school board last month that her preschool son met with a speech language pathologist at his school, Holm Elementary, “very few times” during the fall. The therapist left the school in December, she said, and hadn’t been replaced as of February.

“I have been told before that as a parent of a special needs child, I will have to fight for everything that my kid gets,” she said. “I am disturbed that I have had to go to so much work to get any communication from the district about their plans and responsibilities to meet my son’s needs.”

In a statement, Denver Public Schools said it is aware that “staffing shortages negatively impact our students’ growth and progress on their goals, which is something we strive to avoid at all costs.” The district said it will work to improve its approach to staffing and is “committed to addressing the remedies” outlined by the state in the decision.

The Colorado Department of Education ordered DPS to submit a corrective action plan by April 18. The state also awarded the 6-year-old boy compensatory services. The district must provide the boy with 16 hours of speech therapy by December to make up for what he missed.

DPS has until April 25 to come up with a list of the other 1,000 students who missed speech therapy, the decision says. The district must send a letter to parents by May 22 notifying them that their children may get compensatory services, and it must determine if those students are eligible by Sept. 29. Only students who are behind on their goals are likely to be eligible for those services….

Speech language pathologists and other specialized service providers — a category that includes school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses — have been raising the alarm for years about a culture of too much work and too few staff.

In August, longtime Denver speech therapist Jenni Scobey told the school board she was worried about “the dire state of the speech department in the Denver Public Schools.”…


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