MENDOCINO, CA, 11/18/22 — Kylie Felicich had been trying to get her son — who had an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for speech at Mendocino Unified School District’s K-8 school — assessed for special education services in math for years before administrators conducted an assessment, she told The Mendocino Voice this summer. Felicich said her daughter could not read, write, or spell in kindergarten or first grade, but administrators maintained that she simply needed “a longer runway.” After their experiences trying to get necessary Special Education services, Felicich’s family would eventually leave the district for good — and they are not the only ones.
Felicich said one teacher told her that she could “get in trouble” for advising that Felicich pursue Special Education services due to her son’s struggles in math. She’d hear the same thing from another teacher a couple of years later.
“[His teacher] said, ‘I need to tell you something — your son has a learning disability, and the school doesn’t want you to know,” Felicich said in a phone conversation with The Mendocino Voice over the summer. “And I said, ‘Why would they not want me to know?’ She said, ‘They don’t want to allocate resources to your son. He’s not a behavior problem. He’s really smart. In other words, they just want to push him through. But I’m telling you that there’s something really wrong with a kid that’s this smart that has this specific issue.”
A year later, by an independent party, Felicich’s son would be diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Parent-reported experiences like Felicich’s prompted a report from the Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury this summer, which — among other findings regarding Mendocino Unified’s Special Education program — found that the district’s failure to provide Special Education services mandated by IEP agreements to several students led families to file due process complaints. Then, the Grand Jury found, Mendocino Unified settled these legal disputes with funds set aside for extraordinary legal expenses in the Mendocino County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) budget. SELPA’s budget consists of pooled special education funding from districts around the county; so when Mendocino Unified settles a lawsuit, any attorney fees paid by the district are reimbursed from SELPA funds, in the Grand Jury’s words “hold[ing] the district financially harmless.”
The Grand Jury found that SELPA has reimbursed $94,190 in attorney fees to Ukiah Unified School District, Mendocino Unified School District, and the Mendocino County Office of Education from fall of 2020 to spring of 2022, with $26,750 of those funds going to Mendocino Unified.
“Families never received cash settlements,” the Grand Jury reported, “ — they finally received the mandated educational services they should have received via the IEP agreement.”
The specifics of Felicich’s arrangement can’t be discussed due to documents she signed when settling her complaint against Mendocino Unified, but as she told The Voice, “It would be very challenging for Joe and Sally Smith to get the district to cover the costs for an Independent [Educational] Evaluation (IEE) without a lawyer, even though there are some cases where the school district is obligated to give that student an IEE.”
The Grand Jury posits that as a small “basic aid” school district — meaning one funded entirely by property taxes and not by state aid — Mendocino Unified is disincentivized to provide adequate services to students with disabilities, as these services are complex and expensive, and the district’s revenue stream is the same regardless of whether those students remain in school.
The district’s board disagreed with the Grand Jury’s findings and declined to implement its recommendations, as outlined in a response document of more than 100 pages that included documentation of one family’s settlement. The board published this response ahead of its October 20 meeting, and used part of the meeting as a forum to discuss what its members saw as a “half-hearted inquiry” into the school’s program. Superintendent Jason Morse told The Voice that he was happy with the board’s response and found it thorough.
“I’d like to say that our district is and has been committed to the success of students with disabilities,” Board Chair Michael Schaeffer said. “The board takes the allegations and inaccuracies from the Grand Jury report seriously [and] has issued a thorough response to the report, which we hope will serve to correct the record, ease concerns, and restore relationships and trust within our valued community of parents and students.”
The board said in its response that only four families had filed due process complaints against the district in the past decade. The response also disputed claims and methodology from the Grand Jury report.
The report had alleged that parents who settled due process complaints were made to sign non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. The board declared in its response that NDAs are not part of the process, but all final compromise and release agreements resulting from due process complaints include a clause on confidentiality. Here’s that clause from a 2020 agreement the board included in its public response, with some identifying information redacted:
By their signatures, the parties acknowledge that they will carry out the terms of this Agreement, which shall be maintained as a confidential document by all parties except as required by law. Specifically, Parents shall not share the terms of this Agreement with anyone except the Parents’ legal counsel or their accountants. However, for the limited purpose of resolving questions of implementation and enforcement of the Agreement, the parties mutually consent to disclosure and admissibility of this Agreement. This Agreement may be disclosed for the purpose of obtaining providers to contract with the District for the purposes of implementation of paragraph 2.1. If Parents or District violate the confidentiality of this Agreement, then this will constitute a breach as described in Paragraph 9 of this Agreement.
The Grand Jury interviewed the Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools, staff from the Mendocino County Office of Education, the Superintendent and the K-8 Principal of Mendocino Unified, school district and MCOE business managers, the Executive Director of SELPA, members of the MUSD school board, parents of MUSD students with IEPs, and legal counsel. Jurors also reviewed budgets, legislation, the California School Accounting Manual, the California Department of Education Special Education Governance and Accountability Study, information from the SELPA Administrators of California, and the MUSD Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
In its response, the board expressed concern that the Grand Jury did not utilize subpoena power to review due process complaints, settlement agreements, the IEPs themselves, or California Department of Education compliance data. The board provided examples of several of these documents in its response.
The board also included four messages of support from families sent to Superintendent Morse in September of this year, expressing satisfaction with the districts’ Special Education program.
“Without the educational and emotional support, kindness, understanding and love they received from many people in Mendocino K-8, there is no way possible the kids would be in the shoes that they are in today,” one person wrote of their custodial grandchildren’s experiences in the district.
Several former district parents, though, attended the October meeting to share stories of their struggles receiving services.
“We had meetings [from kindergarten] all the way through sixth grade, SST [Student Study Team] meetings, at least a couple a year,” Crystal Leatherwood said, saying her daughter would have not been able to graduate from high school without her IEP. “I had one meeting with the principal, which was just finding solutions to keep her distractibility down in the classroom. By sixth grade … I was just meeting with the teachers only. … By this time I’m frustrated. My child is not succeeding in the classroom. She’s not getting the help she needs. And I decided to pull my child out of the school. I also had a first grader who I also pulled from the school, and then I had a child who was going to be entering kindergarten, and I decided not to let him attend the school, [though] it would be really convenient. I was talking to a friend about my frustrations and she mentioned, ‘Why doesn’t your child have an IEP?’ And I said, ‘What is that?’ I had no idea that this existed. After six years of SST meetings, I never knew that that was an option for my child, that she could be assessed, that she could have this help.”
After enrolling her children at Caspar Creek Learning Community, Leatherwood said her daughter had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and had an IEP within three months.
Sasha Graham said her teenage son went to Mendocino K-8 for his elementary and middle school, where he struggled to get evaluated for an IEP despite ongoing behavioral struggles that impacted his learning.
“I’m an involved parent, a retired health care provider, and know how to advocate for my son,” she told the board. “Because of our financial situation, I was able to afford private testing, professional opinions, and evaluations that for many parents would be out of reach. Despite all this support, it took over a year to get not only the appropriate but vital individualized learning plan.”
She added, “In high school, he is extremely bright, but he still considers himself dumb and a bad kid.”
Jenifer and Matthew Westmoreland, with whom The Voice spoke in August, came to the district with IEPs already in place for both their children; their older son had been diagnosed with autism.
“We were warned that the school tried to push kids out that had IEPs, that they didn’t want kids there with IEPs,” Jenifer said. “We were told stories as we were going into the school from other parents, like, ‘Good luck with that.’”
The couple said K-8 Principal Kim Humrichouse insisted on an informal plan for navigating their younger child’s tumultuous drop-off at school, despite his having an IEP. Meanwhile, administrators continued to attribute their older child’s struggles to “attention-seeking behavior” although the family was later told that he should have been receiving speech therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling. This family has since moved out of the state and is now home-schooling their son.
“This is all stuff that, if we had known years before, we could have done something about, but instead I have a child who can’t even leave the house anymore,” Jenifer said. “And it’s heartbreaking because when he started at that school, one thing that people told us all the time was his smile would light up the room. He would skip into class. He was happy as can be, he was so excited to go to school — and now he’s depressed and hiding.”
Grand Jury Foreperson Kathy Wylie told The Voice this summer that as a civil watchdog, the Grand Jury is used to responses disputing their findings.
“There’s been a shift in attitude from the responding agencies that have figured out that the Grand Jury is really not their enemy, that we are really trying to help,” Wylie said. “So even when an agency says, ‘You’re all wet, you got everything wrong,’ then when we go back and actually look, we actually weren’t all wet, and they adopted our recommendations.”
The board said in its response to the report that it plans to request that SELPA implement two informational nights in the 2022-23 school year, to outline parental rights and what supports are available to families in the district. At the October meeting, board members and Superintendent Morse expressed a desire to hear more from families about the apparent dissonance between the services they hope to provide and the experiences reported by some special education students and their parents.
“I’m hearing [board member] Mark [Morton] talk about the report and talk about the history of special education and how it came to be up to the present day,” said Jessica Grinberg, one of Mendocino Unified’s board members. “But I feel that we rise above the history. I feel that we need to be more in tune with families, we need to look at every student, and certainly students with IEPs need to be celebrated with compassion for the opportunity we have to educate them and help them work through their struggles. I think we do have amazing staff … and I’m not going to criticize anybody in this process, but I think there’s a miss. I think that we’re not in tune to the families in need.”
Morse is focused on improving Mendocino Unified’s existing programs — including bolstering the board’s knowledge of special education processes.
“That’s going to be the focus of our January 5 workshop, as we’ve already determined, training for the board and just also, what does an IEP look like? How does it happen?” he said at the meeting. “Our staff comes and goes, and we have a lot of transition. I feel like our staff last year and this year are, in my 11 years as superintendent, the best Special Ed staff we’ve had … Our numbers are on par with other districts our size, as far as number of assessments. So we are assessing kids at a very huge rate right now. One thing we can do is to keep trying to improve.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.