Houston Schools Superintendent Tony Cook Credit: MIss. Assoc. of School Superintendents

The Houston School District failed to provide a group of special needs students with an adequate and appropriate education, state officials say.

Non-profit advocacy group Disability Rights Mississippi filed a “systemic state administrative complaint” against the district in December for allegedly violating multiple tenets of the the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA is a federal law that ensures students with disabilities receive services to provide them with an adequate education.

According to a DRMS release, the district failed to provide appropriate behavioral and academic accommodations to a class of students with disabilities. The district also did not provide appropriate behavioral assessments, develop individualized education programs or transition plans for the students, or educate them in the least restrictive environment as is required by IDEA, among other violations.

Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman Patrice Guilfoyle confirmed the department conducted an investigation and found the district in violation of six issues filed in the DRMS complaint, but did not identify specific issues.

Guilfoyle said the school district has 30 days to submit a plan of correction.

“We will monitor the district throughout the year to ensure that they are correcting their areas of noncompliance,” Guilfoyle said in an email.

Superintendent Tony Cook said the district has until March 9 to formally submit a CAP, but is already working to fix the issues.

“We are working with MDE to correct some issues that were created in our special education department over a long period of time,” Cook said.

Cook said district officials were made aware of problems during a monitoring visit in February 2016 and have taken steps since to fix them, like hiring a new director of special education in July.

“It didn’t get broke overnight, it won’t get fixed overnight,” Cook said, adding that the process of correcting problems highlighted in the CAP will be a fluid one.

Wendell Hutchinson, a managing attorney with DRMS, said the release that the violations “are just one example, in DRMS’s experience, of a statewide systemic problem. There is a systemic failure by school districts in the provision of appropriate services, in accordance with IDEA, to students with mental health disabilities.”

“We feel good about the fact that they (MDE) have recognized the problem,” Hutchinson said when reached by phone. “Now we would just like to work collaboratively with them to make sure the corrective action plan is implemented so there is substantive change in the district.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.