Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 @ 3:45 p.m.

Staffing Shortage Has Been Impacting DNUSD Special Education Students For Years, Teachers, Advocate Say

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Special Education Advocates Sue State On Behalf of Six DNUSD Students; Lawsuit Aims To Place District In Receivership

'My Kid's Getting Screwed'; DNUSD Special Ed Students Losing Out On Education Due To Staffing Shortage


Special education at Del Norte Unified School District is a ship on fire, Sarah Elston says, and she and her colleagues spend their days battling the flames.

“Just a few days ago I had two or three one-on-one adults call out sick, they weren’t coming to work, and so this starts my morning at 5:30 having to figure out who’s going to be with this student,” she said. “If somebody has a behavioral episode in the classroom or another aide gets sick or lunch breaks come up, it is constant crisis management that we do in special education today.”

Elston teaches life skills at Del Norte High School, working with students who have profound disabilities, many of whom require one-on-one assistance from an adult. Elston’s class teaches the basics, everything from cooking to learning how to recognize facial expressions and carry on conversations.

Working with minimal staff has been a constant for Elston for all of last year and this year so far. If an aide calls in sick and there are no subs, a student might have to leave campus early or not come to school at all, she said.

Some days, Elston said, she might be called upon to be that one-on-one assistant, keeping the student in her classroom while she tries to teach, which means they lose out on their other subjects. Elston said she'll have between two and 12 students in her classroom. The maximum is 12.

After a year and a third of dealing with this lack of staff, Elston says she’s seen her students regress both academically and socially.

“Imagine a non-verbal student who uses an iPad to communicate — they’re learning this device at school with a speech therapist — and then for weeks or months, they don’t have access to that,” Elston said. “That device, at that point in their life, is their only voice. Their only way to say 'I need to go to the bathroom', 'I’m hot', 'I’m thirsty', 'I’m tired'. Their social-emotional communication digresses at a rate that is unbelievable to me. It keeps me up at night.”

It’s this crisis management and the staffing shortage within DNUSD that has contributed to it that prompted the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) to step in.

Acting on behalf of six special education students and their guardians, attorneys with DREDF, CREEC and King & Spalding LLC filed a lawsuit against state education officials last week. They allege that the staffing shortage has left DNUSD incapable of meeting the plaintiffs’ academic, social and emotional needs and the state needs to step in.

Their first scheduled appearance in Del Norte County Superior Court on Friday was cancelled, however. Del Norte’s two judges recused themselves, according to DREDF Communications Director Tina Pinedo, who spoke with DREDF Staff Attorney Malhar Shah. Another judge needs to be found before they can proceed with the case, Pinedo told the Wild Rivers Outpost.

Friday’s hearing was requested for a judge to seal sensitive documents related to the plaintiffs as well as allow them to proceed with the lawsuit under fictitious names, according to Shah. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had also hoped to schedule another hearing for January to argue whether or not a preliminary injunction to place DNUSD into state receivership should be granted, Shah said on Monday.

Of the roughly 4,000 students enrolled at DNUSD schools, about 15.4 percent have individual education plans, or IEPs, according a DREDF statement released after they filed the lawsuit on Dec. 14. This exceeds the 13 percent state average.

Native American students account for 15.2 percent of DNUSD students with IEPs, and more than 65 percent of the district’s entire student body qualify for free meals.

DREDF has been working with Del Norte families whose children have special needs for about four to five years through its Parent Training and Information Center, or PTI. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, DREDF’s PTI helps families obtain services for their children by providing training as well as helping to resolve problems  with schools and other agencies.

DREDF’s Parent Training and Information Center serves about 30 counties in Northern California. It became acquainted with Del Norte Unified School District after the American Civil Liberties Union released a report about “how poor education was for Native American children in the region,” Senior Advocate Cheryl Theis told the Wild Rivers Outpost.

The ACLU had sued the district in 2007, alleging that discontinuing sixth through eighth grade at Margaret Keating Elementary School on the Yurok reservation was racial discrimination, the Times-Standard reported.

The district reached a settlement agreement with the ACLU in 2010 and extended that agreement in 2014, agreeing to develop and implement curriculum on Yurok Tribal history, forming the American Indian Education Advisory Council and reducing the numbers of suspension and expulsions, the North Coast Journal reported in May 2014.

On Tuesday, Theis said it was the ACLU lawsuit that prompted DREDF’s PTI to look more closely at DNUSD, working with the Northern California Indian Development Council and the State Council on Disability to train families and teachers. And it was during those first training sessions that stories began to surface about a staffing shortage, Theis said.

“When COVID hit, the situation became extremely dire,” she said. “I think it would be a fair statement that every school district in the country was struggling with how to serve students. [But] families began to say this is nothing new. ‘We were told to pick up a packet of work once a week from the school,’ [they'd say]. It became more and more apparent that a lot of these families already felt disenfranchised and kind of hopeless.”

Theis said she and her colleagues weren’t just hearing from families. Speech therapists, occupational therapists and mental health practitioners — front-line folks — began speaking with the PTI. They said students were being sent home on days when an aide didn’t show up or they had been at home for months, according to Theis.

“We began to see a trend or a pattern,” she said. “We have a strong relationship with the legal team [at DREDF]. We aren’t lawyers here, but we were able to reach out to the legal team and say this is a systemic issue. These families have told us they filed state complaints and the state said they’re out of compliance they should hire somebody.”

Theis said the staff who spoke with her and her colleagues at the PTI took their concerns to DNUSD administration and felt like they weren’t being heard. She said it’s unusual for insiders to reach out to the PTI because they worry about retaliation.

Both Ellston and her colleague, Brittany Wyckoff, have given declarations to DREDF in connection with its lawsuit.

Wyckoff joined DNUSD in February 2017 and has been working at Del Norte High as a life skills teacher since fall about 2018. When she first started in the classroom she’s in, she had three to four classroom staff. Now, while the number of students in the class hasn’t changed, Wyckoff said she only has one aide in the class.

"Most students in my classroom are those who are also very behaviorally impacted," she said. "They might have aggressive behavior, self-injurious behavior, they might run out of the classroom or off campus."

Wyckoff said she is supposed to have two staff members in her class who can help students one-on-one if they don't have an aide. Right now she only has one.

"Right now I currently have three students -- two who, on paper, require only one aide," she said. "But that's a fight I've been having. Due to the level of aggressive behavior they can have, I feel they both need two staff. Altogether, I have five actual people in my room when I should have six."

When she first started at the district in 2017 as an infant specialist, visiting families’ homes and doing early-start services for youngsters ages 0-3, Wyckoff said there hadn’t been a teacher for about seven months. At least 16 kids weren’t being served for six to seven months, she said.

“I spent my whole summer with three other teachers making up time kids were owed,” she said. “Just from what I’ve experienced and what I see, in my opinion I feel it’s a leadership issue. You’re not going to attract employees to work for you if you’re not showing you care or [you’re not] paying us what we’re worth.”

Wyckoff said she’s seen staff get injured by the students they work with and not receive a check-in from the special education director.

A student in her classroom was choked by a staff member last year — Wyckoff said she pulled the staff member off him —and the superintendent didn’t have a conversation with that family.

That student, who is autistic, non-verbal and is one of the plaintiffs in the DREDF lawsuit, lost about two months of education following that encounter, according to his mother Linda Vang. This year, her son had been getting dismissed as early as 11:30 a.m. some days when Del Norte High normally gets out at 3:10 p.m.

As a result, Vang submitted a complaint to the California Department of Education about her son’s lost education hours. The CDE conducted an interview and completed a report stating that DNUSD shall show evidence by March 1 that it has provided 94 hours of compensatory services to Vang’s son.

Vang’s complaint is one of 11 that has been submitted to the CDE this school year in connection with special education students not receiving the services they’re entitled to, according to Tom Kissinger, DNUSD’s assistant superintendent of educational services.

Kissinger said he’s not aware of complaints from previous years that have gone unresolved.

Usually when the CDE receives a complaint about the school district, they inform district administration, give them an opportunity to respond and tells the district what corrective action it needs to take, Kissinger said. Their instructions are specific as is the time frame the CDE gives the district to carry them out, he said.

“The only case in which you might not be able to make it happen is if you can’t get the staff in order to do it,” Kissinger said.

On Monday, DNUSD Superintendent Jeff Harris said the district is working with those families and the state to provide compensatory services. Though he said DNUSD has hired eight more speech language pathologists and two certified behavioral analysts, there are still 110 open classified positions, 24 of which work with special education students.

Elston said she has spoken to Harris and Kissinger and the DNUSD Board of Trustees about the staffing shortage and how it affects special education multiple times. She said she feels they ignore the issue, hoping that it will go away.

Elston said she hopes DREDF’s lawsuit will those with the power to create change to pay attention.

“I hope that my students who have no voice for themselves find advocates and that their issues and their lives are brought to the forefront of a conversation about what matters in this district,” she said.

Wyckoff, who said responses from district leadership about the struggles she and her colleagues have had are slow in coming, hopes the lawsuit will prompt them to start listening.

“My hope is that we get leadership in place that have empathy for our students and what our families are dealing with,” she said, “that are actually willing to be here and be present.”


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