Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reports on special education in public schools in the Killeen-Copperas Cove area.
When Autumn and Christian Thomas returned to their hometown of Killeen with their daughter, the couple said they looked forward to watching her grow up in the same school system they attended – the Killeen Independent School District.
But after years of battling the district’s special education department to get proper services for their child, the couple decided homeschooling was the only option to protect their child’s mental and physical health.
“It was just a disaster from the start,” Autumn Thomas told the Herald. “I personally had a good experience growing up in KISD, but my partner had one that was closer to our child’s experience. I thought it was a good neighborhood and soon realized why my partner was worried. We trusted them and I feel bad doing it because it hurt our child.
When Thomas’ daughter was a baby, Autumn Thomas, she said she felt her firstborn was neurodivergent.
“For a very long time her favorite toy was cans of green beans – she would stack them, she would bring them to us to stack, and if you came to my house you would have an armful of cans,” she said. .
Their daughter, now almost 9, is on the autism spectrum and has emotional issues that can easily kick in if the right accommodations aren’t in place.
Under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts must ensure that students ages 3 to 21 with disabilities receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) tailored to their individual needs – which often includes a range of specialist services and facilities to support students.
Without special education accommodations, Autumn Thomas said her daughter was targeted for an Alternative Education Disciplinary Placement (DAEP) at age 6 at Brookhaven Elementary School.
“She would have outbursts that we were still working on with her therapist and psychiatrist,” she said, adding that the outbursts often included screaming and sometimes throwing objects.
“They didn’t want to help her, she was seen as a bad girl who needed to be fired,” she said. “These are things directly related to her mental and emotional struggle, not things that she can entirely help.”
With help from a Brookhaven administrator, Thomas said his daughter was not sent to DAEP but rather designated for special education, transferred to Cedar Valley Elementary, and placed in a “PBS” class. positive behavior support.
Their daughter transferred to another PBS program at Pershing Park Elementary School for second grade, at which point Thomas said she and her husband regretted their decision to enroll their daughter in KISD.
“It was in her IEP (Individualized Education Program) that she had these struggles and things had to be done specifically to help her, but it all kept coming down to her not succeeding,” she said.
Thomas said his child’s accommodations — including providing notice before activity changes and positive reinforcement — were created to help him through the situations that triggered his outbursts.
But the couple said their daughter’s IEP was not tracked as they were called almost daily to pick her up from school to take her home after an explosion.
At worst, the Thomases learned during these outbursts that their only child was being verbally bullied by his teacher, or locked in a bathroom, or restrained not in a “bear hug” as they had been told, but in a way that caused their child a significant amount of pain.
“They were holding her down by pulling her arms behind her, crossing in an X and saying, ‘If you stop, it won’t hurt anymore,'” she said.
When the couple asked the school for “Arrival, Review, Dismissal” (ARD) meetings to discuss their special education issues, they were told an ARD meeting “wasn’t necessary,” they said. the mother.
After watching her outbursts increase at home and school, and her grades plummet, the Thomases eventually removed her from the district at the end of second grade.
She was homeschooled last year and has made progress, according to her mother.
“She’s doing extremely well,” she said. “There aren’t all these constant problems that we were called to school for every day. Much of it stemmed from simply not wanting to understand her; it was as if they had written her off.
After researching special education programs in other states, the mother said she was considering moving to Maine after what they had been through in Texas.
“We spent almost a year working really hard to make things better,” she said. “School was a big part of her problem – it caused her so much anxiety and fear that she was constantly melting. Now her outbursts are minimal and she’s no longer violent – all it takes is patience and not publicly shaming her.
Thomas said she wants the district to do more to support special education students.
“The district can do better to support these children,” she said. “At this point it feels like they are choosing not to. We can open new schools every year, we can spend a million on a scoreboard, but we let special education kids fall behind and be abused. It does not mean anything.
The mother said the district needs to provide support for teachers of special education students.
“I think there is a need for more support for teachers and staff who work for special education,” she said. “Being too stressed and overworked is not good for teachers or children.”
This isn’t the first time that KISD’s special education department has come under scrutiny.
As previously reported by the Herald, a KISD employee said crucial special education staff are being pulled from classrooms to cover general education teachers, leaving special education students without the services that granted to them under federal law.
In 2016, KISD’s special education department needed a “major curriculum overhaul,” according to an internal audit conducted by Gibson Consulting Group – the same group that was hired on February 8 by the KISD school board to conduct another special education audit.
At the time, the audit found that KISD’s special education program lacked accountability measures, effective staffing, and district-wide program consistency.
According to the 2016 audit, the district also spent less than the state average on special education students.
Over the past five years, six families have filed complaints to the highest level of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) through a “special education due process hearing,” but only one has won.
TEA, the same agency responsible for holding Texas school districts accountable, like KISD, was investigated by the Department of Education and in 2018 found to have violated federal law. by placing an arbitrary cap of 8.5% on the number of special education students. individual districts could serve – leading to the denial of needed educational services to thousands of students with disabilities across the state for years.
In 2021, the national education agency was still correcting its shortcomings in this department.
According to the US Department of Education website, since 2018, five complaints have been filed with the DOE’s Civil Rights Office regarding Killeen ISD’s treatment of students with disabilities.
Killeen ISD spokeswoman Taina Maya told the Herald the district could not comment on any specific student, but released the following statement on Friday.
“Killeen ISD takes any allegations of improper restraint and behavior seriously and conducts reviews and investigations when claims are made,” Maya wrote. “Parents are encouraged to follow our dispute resolution process and contact us directly if they feel their child’s needs are not being met. Killeen ISD continues to provide students with a free and appropriate public education.