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Special ed advocates say layoffs of case managers hit District hard

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The District’s financial crisis has meant draconian cuts to programs and services. Last July, the District eliminated the job of special education case manager, cutting 22 positions.

The Notebook spoke with two of the city’s most active special education parent advocates, Cecelia Thompson and Cathy Roccia-Meier, about the impact that the case manager layoffs has had on the delivery of special education services to the District’s 21,000 students with IEPs (Individualized Educational Programs).

Notebook: What are the effects of the July case manager layoffs?

Thompson: It’s being felt tremendously. The case manager was an advocate for the children, for the parents, and that voice is gone.

Roccia-Meier: Case managers assisted in managing situations in school, they did compliance, they did upper-level transfers and placement changes. Now families can’t reach a person to help them with these issues. They also had specific levels of training and expertise, such as reading specialist or autism specialist.

Notebook: Who absorbed the work of the case managers?

Thompson: Somewhere between the special ed director, the SEL [in-school Special Education Liaison], and the school.

Roccia-Meier: It’s a good idea, putting the onus on the school itself. But because of the workload of the SELs, who usually teach as well, it is impossible for an SEL to provide services and compliance monitoring.

Notebook: How would you characterize IEP caseload management in the District?

Thompson: Overwhelming. Insurmountable. There’s no way one director can oversee two to three thousand IEPs without the help of the case managers.

Notebook: What are you hearing from parents?

Thompson: When they try to get to a director, they don’t get a response.

Roccia-Meier: Deep frustration. Simple issues that in previous years could be corrected with a phone call and the right person are now going straight to due process because of lack of staff. [Directors] are unresponsive because they’re overwhelmed with the quantity of work.

Notebook: How should parents respond when their requests are delayed?

Roccia-Meier: Parents and advocates need to make sure everything is put in writing from day one. One of the best steps if you’re not getting a resolution is to go to the Office of Dispute Resolution. The next level would be a complaint to the state, which gives 60 days for the issue to be resolved. Unfortunately, I fear that more families are going to due process than any time in recent memory.

Notebook: In light of continuing budget cuts, how can caseload management be improved?

Thompson: The only thing we can do is advocate for change. We need to present the SRC with real stories of how what they’re doing is hurting our children.

Roccia-Meier: It is a federal mandate that students receive a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. It’s a law. So if [IEPs are] not getting followed, parents need to take the next step. This is a legal right for their child and they need to follow up.