GA GNET/Psychoed Center "Appalling" Audit & AJC Exclusive Article
Below is Jaime Sarrio’s AJC exclusive report on the Audit of GA’s GNET programs, otherwise known as Psychoed Centers.
I’ve attached the audit. It is appalling, shameful and quite disturbing and should be used to justify why NO more students are ever sent to these awful and harmful facilities……………………………
Practices of harmful and deadly seclusion and restraint at these facilities was also embedded in our Advocacy for the new Seclusion and Restraint policy.
Feel free to distribute far and wide to other families and disability list servs.
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Carol Sadler, Special Education Consultant/Advocate
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"There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people." ---- Thomas Jefferson
“Refrain from Restraining, Secluding and Corporal Punishment” ---- Carol Sadler, Advocate
GNET=GetNoEducation/Therapy=PsychoNOed=Jail without jury or trial=Imprisonment without legal representation
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Information contained in this communication is confidential and privileged. It is not meant to represent legal or medical advice, but rather advice given based on my knowledge as a trained Parent Advocate by the GA Advocacy Office, Council of Parent Advocates & Attorneys, CHADD, LDA, the GA DOE Parent Mentor program as an invited guest and the special education attorneys that I often work with on educational matters. Please do not forward without my permission.
AJC exclusive: Report says more should be done to track student progress, spending
By Jaime Sarrio
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Georgia's Department of Education is pouring millions into a program for the most emotionally disturbed students, but there is little evidence the special attention is helping, according to a state audit.
Curtis Compton, firstname.lastname@example.org
The state spent $64 million last year on the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, a special education program that serves students age 3-21 who have severe emotional or behavioral problems. Across the state, the program's 24 branches offer instruction in special classrooms at select schools or at off-site locations.
In a new report, state auditors raise concerns about the way the Department of Education is running the program. They say more needs to be done to track how these students – about 5,500 statewide – are progressing academically. And they want more accountability over how taxpayer money is spent on the 40-year-old program.
State education officials say the program is monitored in several ways and point out that federal and state laws as well as testing regulations apply to all special needs students, including those in the program. The branches are also overseen by local agencies, which help set the budgets and staffing.
“The program has made great strides in serving these students academically,” said Debbie Gay, who oversees the program for the Department of Education. “The highest priority is to help these kids reach graduation, to keep them in school and to provide that level of therapeutic support that allows them access to education.”
Among the audit’s findings:
• Students in the program had lower graduation rates and were less likely to go on to post-secondary education compared to the overall population of students with disabilities. Ten percent of high school students served by the program in 2004-05 graduated with a regular diploma by 2009.
• Auditors anticipated test results from this hard-to-teach population would be lower than the general population. They said, however, it is difficult to put scores into context, since the state didn’t collect test data from the program until 2009-2010. Their own research for test scores for 2008-2009 found that students in the program scored lower on state standardized tests in every subject compared to the overall population of students with disabilities.
• Several sites did not have psychologists and social workers, despite being allocated state funds for these positions. Ten program directors earned more than $100,000 a year, though the state provides only $50,336 for that position.
Leslie McGuire, director of the performance audits division for the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts, said her office audited the program because of the amount of money it spends and the population it serves.
“The Department of Education has decided to make this a separate program, with separate resources, yet they have no idea what the outcomes are as a result of getting smaller student-teacher ratios and therapeutic staff,” McGuire said. “There wasn’t a way to say for each individual program or all 24 programs, how are these students doing.”
Known as the Georgia Psychoeducational Network when it started in 1972, the program is meant to help students whose behavior is so severe they can’t be educated in traditional classrooms alone.
That was the case with Stacy Georges' daughter, who enrolled in the program at 12 after four failed attempts to learn in private and public schools.
Now 14, she could not sit still. She was smart but had meltdowns when she scored poorly on tests. She was violent and would harm herself at school, at one point attempting suicide, her mother said.
The Georgeses opted to try the North Metro program for students in Atlanta, Buford, North Fulton and Gwinnett. Her daughter now attends school at Haynes Bridge Middle but spends a portion of her day in a separate classroom with North Metro instructors.
There, the environment is designed to be less stimulating, with smaller classes and subdued lighting and sound. Two teachers experienced around children with behavioral problems work with her on academics.
As her behavior has improved, she’s been permitted to mix in with general education classes. Her family hopes she will transition to special education support classes next year for high school.
“I am pretty sure she’s going to be able to graduate and hopefully go on to college," Georges said. "(Before) I was hoping she would live that long, honest to God."
State auditors say it is difficult to know how well the program may be working.
Until last year, test data didn’t single out the program participants. That meant the Georges' daughter's scores were tracked by the state only as a Haynes Bridge Middle student, and not as a student receiving the additional support services of North Metro.
Some accountability occurs on the local level.
Cherokee County Schools this year decided to end its relationship with the program branch in that area, NorthStar Educational and Therapeutic Services, citing concerns over the way it was managed. In a June letter to school board members, Superintendent Frank R. Petruzielo said an in-house review determined students could be more efficiently and effectively served by the school district.
“The NorthStar review and evaluation revealed several areas in need of immediate restructuring and improvement, as well as ways to decrease administrative costs and focus more resources on students and classrooms.”
A representative for NorthStar deferred to the state for comment. The state responded that the program is optional and districts have the right to opt out.
Department of Education officials said they addressed tracking concerns by changing the way test scores are reported so they can now see how all 24 branches of the program -- and the students in them -- are performing. The No Child Left Behind federal education law adds another layer of accountability. If students in the program aren’t performing well, the school could face sanctions for not meeting state testing benchmarks, they said.
Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the state also oversees the program though a monitoring process that incorporates performance data, site visits, record reviews and meetings with state directors. The programs must adhere to state class-size ratios and other education guidelines.
Auditors also raised questions about how the money was spent by program branches.
State Board of Education rules recommend specialists such as educators, psychologist, social workers, psychiatrists and behavior support specialists for each program. But the audit noted that six of the 24 had no psychologist, five had no social worker, and one program had neither.
In 2009, the programs received state money for 56 psychologists and 112 social workers, but they staffed only 37 psychologists and 72 social workers, according to the audit.
Directors are allotted $50,336 in state money for salary, but auditors found 10 making more than $100,000 a year.
State officials said they review and approve all program budgets. But the state doesn't control what positions a local branch chooses to hire because budgets are managed by local fiscal agencies -- sometimes school districts, sometimes regional education agencies. Those agencies kick in extra money and staff, making a branch-to-branch analysis for the program complicated.
“I don’t think we’re taking issue so much with how much people were paid, but just this idea that we don’t know what kind of resources (there are) because there’s that local component,” McGuire said.
State education officials said directors' salaries are determined by experience, education and what nearby school districts would pay an administrator at that level. Susan McKenzie, director of the North Metro program, said she has been in education for 30 years and has a master's degree. She earns $109,931, according to auditors.
North Metro works with nearby districts to supplement the staff paid for by the state, she said. In most cases, districts provide teaching staff and paraprofessionals on top of what the program has allocated. The program also contracts with psychiatrists and behavioral specialists.
"Has the budget crisis affected us? Absolutely," she said. "We’ve had a lot of holdbacks and austerity reductions over the last several years... . We try to plan with our local schools systems and look at our staffing needs to ensure we’re providing that balance of programming."
McKenzie said that overall, she believes system's setup works.
But parent Stefanie Smith sees room for improvement.
After her then 8-year-old son had been in and out of public and private school, Smith placed him in the North Metro program. She withdrew him four months later after he came home with bruises and showed signs of fear toward certain teachers. When she reported her concerns to the social worker, she said her claims were brushed off.
Program director Susan McKenzie said student privacy laws prevent her from commenting on this case, but she said the school’s procedure is to investigate all parent complaints and refer such allegations to child services.
Following the incident, Smith started a private school with 10 students, including her son. Called Alexsander Academy, it is for children with learning differences such as autism spectrum disorders, she said.
“These kids have issues, yes, but if they are handled appropriately, the kids have a lot of potential,” Smith said. “These are bright kids, they can go on to college. They have much more capacity than what they’re giving credit for, but they need an environment that can be flexible for them.”