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Cloaking Inequity: How Does KIPP Charter Really Treat Parents?

A KIPP parent sent me a disturbing story today! I am more and more convinced that we need a national website like Yelp for charter schools, I was thinking we could call it Chelp.com. It would be a website where parents can do to get help when they run into the charter school buzz saws that I have blogged about often here on Cloaking Inequity. This is not my first tangle with or blog about KIPP Houston (See more posts here). I actually started Cloaking Inequity because of KIPP’s deceptive response to a  peer reviewed research study about charter attrition that we published in the Berkeley Review of Education.

Here is her story:

Mary Courtney has been trying to get basic Special Education services for her son at KIPP for three years. When her son did not receive the Special Education services he should have received by law, she advocated for her son. When KIPP would not provide the support her son needed, she found therapeutic support for her son on her own outside of school. And she continued to advocate for her son and other students with disabilities, filing complaints whenever KIPP regularly broke state and federal laws.

Originally a strong charter school advocate, even speaking at the State Capital seeking more charter funding, she became increasingly discouraged by the KIPP charter school chain. In 2017, When she found out that parents like her were charged hundreds of dollars per parent in school fees, she complained to the state of Texas which later required KIPP to stop charging these unallowable fees.

KIPP retaliated against her son, filing over thirty discipline referrals against him, hoping that the family would remove him from KIPP and their problem family would disappear. But her son liked the school and given his disabilities- cognitive delays, autism, ADHD and epilepsy- his mother was committed to providing as much stability as possible. So she kept her son at KIPP.

Two weeks ago on February 27, 2020, KIPP expelled her son from school for trumped up charges, in the process violating a long list of federal Special Education laws. This expulsion came after KIPP had filed two lawsuits against the family. Only one month before the expulsion, KIPP’s attorneys offered Mrs. Courtney $10,000 to leave the school.

Using unprincipled techniques ranging from lawsuits to bribery to expulsion, KIPP was more committed to getting rid of a Special Needs kid than serving his needs.

Mary Courtney and her family moved to Houston from Louisiana in 2013. While her family is low income, she has always been determined that her son will receive the education they need to be successful in life.

When Mary brought her son to KIPP in 2015, she had high hopes. At the time, she did not know that KIPP disproportionately  suspended  African  American  students. Even though its schools were only 33% African American, the out-of-school suspension rate was 60%, nearly twice that. In 2015, she also did not know that KIPP and charters like KIPP tended to “counsel” parents of children with special needs to return to their home school.

Her son was identified as a Special Education student in February 2017. The school started with the usual speech. The Special Education Director of KIPP Texas, Andrea Sampy, stated, “I’ve seen this before. Based on my experience, I’m looking at a child that is emotionally disturbed.” KIPP gave her son an “emotionally disturbed” label with no formal evaluation whatsoever.

Mrs. Courtney disagreed emphatically and asked for a formal outside evaluation of her son. Her son was identified with autism and expressive and receptive language delay. The child’s doctor also diagnosed him as having ADHD and epilepsy.

KIPP did not like this diagnosis that contradicted their informal assessment and they refused to pay. Mrs. Courtney won a due process lawsuit against the school because they delayed her son’s evaluation. Thus, KIPP was required to pay for the original evaluation.

However, the agreement reached in early 2018 allowed the school to re-evaluate her son. The school determined that her son qualified for services under the emotionally disturbed (ED) label, other health impairment (ADHD and epilepsy) and learning disability in written expression and math calculation. The autism, ADHD and epilepsy labels were determined by a medical doctor and Mrs. Courtney supported the diagnosis. She continued to disagree with the school’s emotionally disturbed label because it was not based on any formal diagnosis of outside evaluators, just the opinions of three staff members.

The only disability services her son consistently received the three years at KIPP was bus transportation to school. Her son has not consistently received many of the other services stipulated in his individual educational plan (IEP). During a 2019 investigation, “TEA found that social skills development have not been provided in accordance with the IEP (for her son).” This academic year, her son has not received counseling services 30 minutes per week nor has he received psychological services once per month as stipulated by his IEP. And he has not had consistent paraprofessional support for specialized instruction in mathematics and reading since the previous school year. A charter school like KIPP receives public funds and, as such, is required by law to provide Special Education services.

But it gets worse. Mrs. Courtney stated, “The more I advocated about his lack of services and how the ED label was incorrect; the more they began to give office referrals for discipline. Then they started suing me and trying to get me to leave the school.”

In April and Fall 2019, KIPP filed due process lawsuits against Mrs. Courtney to defend the appropriateness of their evaluation, specifically the emotionally disturbed label that Mrs. Courtney disputed. KIPP eventually withdrew both lawsuits, likely because they did not have a reasonable claim. Instead of providing services for her son, KIPP used discipline referrals and unnecessary protracted litigation over issues that should have been, as a matter of public policy, solved through mediation. Pure and simple, they filed lawsuits against the Courtney family to bully them into leaving KIPP.

Her son, is a helpful son, very soft-spoken and caring. While he got in some fights in elementary and middle school, it was a result of his autism and communication deficits rather than his disposition. Since KIPP did not provide any services at all for her son, Mrs. Courtney found an organization that provided free applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy two years ago. Since then, her son has learned strategies to manage his autism and has not gotten in any more fights.  He is truly a gentle giant but, unfortunately, because he is tall and large for his age and Black, some of his teachers judge him as intimidating.

On Valentine’s Day this past month, her son, an autistic student, and his new girlfriend got off the bus and went into the cafeteria. His previous ‘girlfriend’ with whom he had never kissed or even held hands was unhappy and insulted him. He moved to another part of the cafeteria using a strategy his ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapist had told him to manage his autism and responses. Later, after breakfast, his former ‘girlfriend’ yelled at him and he yelled back. Both cursed at each other. Then he started walking to class. The two students were sent to the main office, she tried to hit him and a teacher stopped her. She then punched a wall and the students waited in the office for the administrator.

The former “girlfriend’s” mother arrived and the school leader asked her son to come to the office and sit down. Her son said he was not comfortable going in the office without his mom. Mrs. Courtney arrived at the school and took her son home having been told by phone that her son was suspended for three days. When he returned to school, he was placed in in-school suspension and then he was expelled on February 27, 2020.

Federal law requires that the school must take into account a student’s disabilities when making a discipline referral. Students with autism have social and communication deficits, so his outburst is highly likely to be a manifestation of his disability. The school is required to hold a hearing called an manifestation determination and review (MDR) before a student can be expelled or have more than 10 days of suspension in a school year.

Her son is a child with autism, cognitive disabilities, ADHD and epilepsy. He never received services as required by law. His expulsion is a violation of the law and is retaliatory.

Charter schools like KIPP think they can violate parent’s due process rights like they did to Mary Courtney with impunity. It is time to hold charter schools accountable. They get public funds and should be publicly accountable for how they are used. They must be held accountable for what they are doing to her son.

Sincerely, 
Mary Courtney 
March 1, 2020

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Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Dean and a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky College of Education.

In addition to educational accomplishments, Julian Vasquez Heilig has held a variety of research and practitioner positions in organizations from Boston to Beijing. These experiences have provided formative...