3 takeaways from the state’s investigation into special ed at Chicago’s juvenile jail

Letter from Illinois State Board of Education to Chicago Public Schools officials

On March 31, officials with the Illinois State Board of Education sent a letter to Chicago Public Schools officials detailing their investigation into special education services at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative High School inside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.

In late March, the Illinois State Board of Education quietly completed a monthslong investigation into Chicago Public Schools’ alleged failure to provide required special education services to students inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Injustice Watch recently obtained a copy of a report detailing the state’s findings that gives a rare look at the experiences of special education students locked up in the facility during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state’s 36-page report corroborates some of the allegations by attorneys at Equip for Equality and Legal Aid Chicago, who had filed a complaint alleging that services were “essentially halted” for special education students at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School during the pandemic.

The state found that CPS violated state and federal law by not completing evaluations for some students who might be eligible for special education services “as expeditiously as possible.” The school district also failed to show documentation proving that it provided nursing and social work services to students who required them, the report said.

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But the state concluded that Jefferson made “good faith efforts” to provide students with special education services as required by federal law, given the circumstances.

During an April 19 local school council virtual meeting at Jefferson, Principal Leonard Harris said Jefferson was working with ISBE to address issues found in the state investigation. He also maintained that the decisions made by the school during the pandemic that the legal groups complained about happened “in direct concert with the district.”

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State education officials order CPS to fix special education issues for students behind bars

The Illinois State Board of Education issued a corrective action plan for Chicago Public Schools in response to a complaint over alleged failures to serve special education students at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Harris also claimed that Injustice Watch’s article about problems at the school contained “many inaccuracies” but acknowledged the piece “did correctly indicate that [Jefferson] had delayed the initial evaluation of two students” in special education because of Covid-19. Harris did not specify the alleged inaccuracies or answer follow-up questions.

The school district also declined to comment about the issues identified at Jefferson.

While the report was heavily redacted — even the steps that the state said CPS must take to fix the problems were blacked out — our review of the document sheds light on the challenges faced by students and educators in the juvenile detention center in the past year. Here’s what we learned.

The confines of juvenile detention 

Jonah Newman

The Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s Near West Side houses Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School.

Even before the pandemic, the juvenile detention center’s policies were a barrier to CPS providing special education students the accommodations they required, according to the report.

Harris told the state’s investigators that the detention center prohibits students from using any technology, including headphones, calculators, and personal laptops. The restrictions prevent the district from providing those devices to students with disabilities who need them. Instead, teachers try to accommodate their students’ needs by providing hard copies of assignments, reading text aloud, or offering them nonwritten ways to participate, the report said.

The restrictions are even more severe for students who get into trouble inside the detention center and are placed into a “behavior pod.” According to the report, those students have no direct access to a teacher, dedicated instruction, or therapeutic services. Teachers are only able to send a printed instructional packet for the students to complete. However, Jefferson’s case manager for special education services reassured investigators that students were “expected to work to the best of their ability and are not penalized,” according to the report.

Amanda Klonsky, a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work and a former educator at the detention center, said conditions at the facility “have always limited what even the greatest teachers could do in their classrooms.”

Covid-19 restrictions and response

The Covid-19 pandemic created additional challenges to meeting the needs of special education students inside the detention center. The school district did not provide remote learning to students at Jefferson until July 3 — nearly four months after the students were confined to their living “pods” because of Covid-19 restrictions, according to a spokesperson for Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans, whose office oversees the detention center. In the intervening months, students received instructional packets, the spokesperson said.

According to Harris, students were placed in a 10-day quarantine when they were first detained at the facility. During the quarantine, the school could not provide students with direct access to a teacher or specialized instruction, Harris said, and “school personnel [were] not aware” of which students were in quarantine. After the 10 days, the students were enrolled into Jefferson, and the case manager determined whether they required special education services.

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Even with these precautions, 89 detained children and 113 staff members have contracted Covid-19, according to the spokesperson for Evans.

“The truth is teachers have been heroic throughout the pandemic, finding innovative ways to connect with students online, and having to totally reimagine what schooling looks like during this crisis,” Klonsky said.

The state’s long and opaque investigation process

The report shows how opaque and slow the process is for investigating special education complaints.

State and federal laws regarding special education allow anyone to file a complaint with the state board of education if they think that a school is not meeting the needs of a student with disabilities.

The state board of education has 60 days after a complaint is filed to begin an investigation. According to the report, state school officials took nearly that much time — six weeks — before starting their investigation into Jefferson. In addition, the state gave CPS four extensions to provide materials in response to their questions. By the time the district provided relevant documents, it had been nearly four months since the legal aid groups filed their complaint.

Barb Cohen is a legal advocate at the Legal Council for Health Justice, a Chicago nonprofit that provides legal support and advocacy around health care and disability rights. She said the state’s drawn-out investigation meant students at the detention center went without the support they needed.

“It’s five months plus however long implementation takes that students are continuing to lose access to services,” Cohen said.

The final report was so heavily redacted that it’s unclear what steps the state told CPS to take to fix the problems that state investigators identified.

Without seeing what the plan is, the public has no way of holding the district accountable for fixing the problems, Cohen said.

“Without being able to see what the corrective action plan is, parents, advocates, and other interested parties have no way of knowing whether or not the plan is comprehensive,” she said. “They have no idea whether or not the plan is being implemented. And we have no way of measuring compliance.”

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