Waco Independent School District is facing accusations of discrimination based on race, sex and retaliation for filing a complaint, as part of three ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Two of the investigations date back to 2014, when Waco ISD was cited by the Texas Education Agency for placing black students in the district’s alternative education program at a higher rate than other groups.

The other open investigation is into a retaliation claim from fall 2016, initiated by a district employee who filed another Office for Civil Rights report claiming the district failed to properly test for dyslexia in more than 50 students whose native language is Spanish. The dyslexia investigation, into discrimination based on national origin and disability, was closed Aug. 31 with investigators reporting the district had addressed the concerns raised.

“It’s important for your readers to understand a letter from OCR is much more like someone in a newsroom who gets a tip and seeing if there’s anything there, than a story on the front page saying we’ve concluded there’s something to this,” Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

The U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t say how many open discrimination investigations it has against Texas school districts or whether the number of open cases at Waco ISD is unusual. It also declined to comment on the status of Waco’s investigations.

But the department stated by email the average investigation time at school districts in 2016 was 205 days.

Though the investigations are open, the district has made significant strides toward improving discipline programs at all schools and has adding training and resources to the dyslexia department, school district officials said.

Dyslexia testing

In the Office for Civil Rights letters notifying Waco ISD about the retaliation investigation, the employee alleges retaliation started in March 2016 after she filed the complaint alleging improper dyslexia testing.

The employee did not want to speak about the situation to the Tribune-Herald and did not want her name used for fear of losing her job or other retaliation.

Among the allegations, the employee claims her access to student records was restricted, she was reprimanded for attempting to access student data relevant to her job duties and she was denied the ability to have a representative during a meeting regarding an internal grievance.

In the investigation that has since been closed, the employee alleged in a complaint filed July 2016 that Waco ISD failed to give Spanish-language dyslexia screening for students whose native language is Spanish and failed to use the correct dyslexia testing materials for those students throughout the 2015-16 school year.

The TEA has since signed off on the district’s dyslexia screening for students who aren’t native English speakers, and the employees allegations were false, said Teri Rinewalt, the assistant director of special education who oversees the dyslexia department. Between 30 and 40 students may have been misidentified and tested improperly before she started overseeing the department, Rinewalt said. However, the students didn’t all speak Spanish as their native language, and they have been retested properly, she said.

She took over the department in March 2015 and has corrected longstanding issues since, including a lack of training for dyslexia specialists and an inadequate record keeping system that led to poor dyslexia treatment, she said earlier this year. The district has spent more than $51,000 since the end of 2014 on dyslexia materials, including material for students who do not speak English as their native language.

A home-language survey directed by the district’s bilingual department triggers additional steps for testing if the survey shows any language other than English, Rinewalt said.

“The parents must consent to the services after we have done the home-language survey and additional testing by the bilingual department. … We have processes and procedures to ensure all of this is happening in Waco ISD,” she said. “This is what was told to OCR and TEA when these questions came up previously, and they agreed that our procedures were in place and working for the students of Waco ISD.”

Local grievances and a petition to the TEA filed by the employee also state the employee reached out several times to Rinewalt to address the issue, offer help and ask for proper testing, but she claimed her requests were rejected.

Emails between the complainant and Rinewalt show the employee asked for Spanish dyslexia testing materials be used to evaluate several students, and Rinewalt responded to make sure procedures were being followed, she said.

This occurred after the employee presented Rinewalt with a spreadsheet that identified which students had received formal dyslexia testing and which hadn’t in May 2015.

The week of March 14, 2016, the employee asked Rinewalt for Spanish dyslexia testing for a couple of students who have Spanish listed as their home language, but were only tested in English.

“We do not have a Spanish dyslexia specialist, but we can set up a time to have an interpreter present to go through the protocols,” Rinewalt wrote back. “This is what we do for special education testing. I can just find out who that will be and you can coordinate with them for them to come in and go through the testing.”

The Office for Civil Rights closed the complaint Aug. 31, after learning the TEA investigated a similar complaint filed by the same employee in March 2016.

The TEA determined the district had “adequately addressed the concerns in the complaint,” according to an Office for Civil Rights letter sent to the district. As of Friday, the retaliation case against the district was still open, DeBeer said.

Discipline of elementary students

District officials couldn’t speak to the specifics of the other two investigations, citing privacy protection laws, but the Office for Civil Rights investigations involve discipline of three elementary students on two campuses.

The first incident occurred in December 2014, according to the Office for Civil Rights letter. The complainant states her son was disciplined “differently than similarly situated white and Hispanic students” at Mountainview Elementary School. This includes seating her son behind a cardboard box in a classroom during the 2014-15 school year, the letter states.

The complainant also alleges school officials failed to promptly and effectively step in when students called her son racially derogatory names and that school officials failed to promptly address sexually derogatory comments about female students during the same time period.

The second investigation involves similar allegations with two students at Crestview Elementary School during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. The office is investigating whether school officials failed to promptly take effective action to the address the racial harassment of one student by other students, which created a hostile environment.

The investigation is also looking into whether Waco ISD officials disciplined the other child in the complaint more harshly than students of other races in similar situations. Specifically, the student was punished for bringing a toy gun to school.

Waco ISD’s policy involving students who bring guns to school is to account for factors including how the gun was displayed, whether it was indeed a toy, as well as past behavior or discipline issues in the same school year, DeBeer said.

Since the TEA flagged the district for disciplining black students at a higher rate than other students, the district has hired Trudy Bender, as a behavior intervention coordinator to ensure the problem does not arise again, especially with out-of-school suspensions.

“The last three years, that rate has come down and come down, and this year we’re below the threshold and the TEA is no longer looking at that for our district,” Bender said. “We still have disproportionality in some areas, but in terms of out-of-school suspension rates with students of color and students of disabilities, we’ve reduced that below the threshold the TEA sets.”

The district has also implemented data-driven response to intervention systems and instruction, restorative justice and behavioral programs, additional social and emotional skills training. The district has also increased professional development and community involvement, Bender said.

“Now when I go onto a campus, I’m more likely to find that tiered kind of system where they’re thinking intentionally, ‘What are we doing to make sure we have a healthy school climate here? What are we doing to support the students who need a little bit extra? And how are we going to manage the students who have extremely challenging behaviors or disabilities?’ We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made a lot of progress in those three years,” Bender said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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