A meeting of the San Diego Unified school board / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Parents of special education students in San Diego Unified continue to warn the district that their children are unsafe in severely understaffed classrooms.

The latest stories to emerge: A mother of a student with special needs at Perry Elementary in southeastern San Diego said kids in her child’s classroom have been injured, one wandered out of the school and another put his head through a window.

“I’ve dedicated my life to this classroom,” said the mother, Shanika Jones, who now goes into the room to help every day.

Jones and two other mothers – all with kids in the same classroom – stood in front of San Diego Unified community special education committee meeting last Thursday to plead with district staff for more support.

The stories from Perry are familiar: Last month, various parents of students in special education classes told the same district committee that without the close supervision of aides and other special education staff, children have wandered out of classrooms and eaten things like rocks and paper clips.

Before Thanksgiving, San Diego Unified had  100 special education aide vacancies. The district also has roughly 11 full-time teacher vacancies, nearly all for classes for students with the most severe disabilities. Another 37 positions for special education-credentialed teachers are currently filled by interns, though for some of the interns it isn’t their first year teaching at the district.

Those numbers remain unchanged.

Aide positions are accounted for by the number of hours a student needs in his or her education plan. Some schools have students who require aide hours, but don’t have access to them.

M.J. Lewis, the mother of a student with special needs at Tierrasanta Elementary, shed tears as she thanked the staff at her school. Her daughter has come so far in her few years at the school, “but we don’t do so well when there’s not an aide in the class,” she said.

Lewis said her school was short 94 hours a week in aides across all students.

The district said it had a hiring event for aides on Dec. 7 and 8, which yielded between 40 and 60 candidates. It expects to have another hiring event in January.

A spokeswoman for the district said in an email that the number of vacancies hasn’t changed over the last month because of holidays and furlough days.

Deanne Ragsdale, the executive director of special education at San Diego Unified, previously told Voice of San Diego that the large numbers of vacancies in special education is the result of a shortage of credentialed teachers, and high turnover among special education aides in general.

Staffing for special education and the success of students with disabilities is, indeed, a problem statewide.

EdSource reported last week that two-thirds of the 228 districts across the state will receive additional assistance after students with disabilities performed very poorly in the state’s new accountability system.

The state has been slowly trying to address the issue.

In 2016, California began giving millions in grant money to help classified employees, like special education aides, get their teaching credentials.

Last week, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing changed the way special education teachers will be trained.

Ragsdale told Voice of San Diego that the large number of vacancies are not related to budget cuts made by the district last year. Others aren’t so sure.

Moira Allbritton, chair of the special education committee, said it is true that there has always been a shortage of special education teachers, but that it’s entirely possible the district’s budget issues have compounded the problem.

“I don’t remember a time where there was an expanse of credentialed special education teachers to hire from, but yet we gave pink slips last year,” Allbritton said. “I really do believe, when we have a year like we did with the budget, those things amplify the issues with students.”

Allbritton said she’s seen improvement in high-level special education staff. The transition to consolidate classrooms with the most severely disabled students, she said, was a good move in long run. The special education staff has been more transparent this year than in the past, she said.

“But the staffing vacancies are disconcerting,” she said.

Allbritton said that students with disabilities often struggle with transitions more than other students.

For students who may be nonverbal, for example, it’s much more difficult to build a relationship with a new person in a new year because they can’t communicate their needs and feelings in the same way as other kids.

In addition, students with disabilities often come in contact with more adults. They often have a teacher, an aide, a bus driver, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, etc. When staffing churn happens, Allbritton said, it doesn’t just mean getting used to one new person, it’s getting used to a whole new team of people, which can be a lot.

Not having an aide can also mean that a child who could have gone into a general education classroom part time may not get to go. That sets them back, and in some cases violates what a parent, a child’s teacher and other district staff agreed the child needed in his or her Individualized Education Program, the document that lays out the needs and goals of each child with a disability.

“When a kid can’t go to gen ed because they don’t’ have an [aide] to take them, that’s a huge denial of a [Free Appropriate Public Education],” Allbritton said. “That’s the part that seems surreal. One hundred vacancies means a number of children whose [Individualized Education Programs] cannot physically be implemented.”

Yvette Hernandez, one of the Perry Elementary parents at the district’s most recent special education committee meeting, said that families like hers can’t keep waiting for more staffers to materialize. They need help.

“To our kids, every second, every minute counts,” she said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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