Kentucky’s top education official has taken the rare step of demanding from Jefferson County Public Schools that they take immediate actions to correct violations of state and federal laws, including some that protect the health, safety and education opportunities of students with disabilities.

Stephen Pruitt

Kentucky Department of Education “staff has identified specific areas of district instruction and operation directly affecting students and in need of immediate corrective action,” Education Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt wrote in a letter to JCPS Interim Superintendent Marty Pollio.

In its response, the district, which will be discussing the matter in Tuesday’s board meeting, wrote that it is addressing the deficiencies in part by creating written procedures, providing more staff training and developing processes to make sure that policies are being followed. Pollio wrote that the district would immediately inform all principals of the steps that needed to be taken to correct the violations. The district also has created additional staffing positions, including five school psychologists.

Pruitt sent the letter as the state is nearing completion of a management audit of JCPS that could lead to more state scrutiny of local school operations and could even prompt state officials to appoint the local district’s superintendent. According to the KDE, such a letter demanding immediate action has not been sent since at least 2009.

State education staff had uncovered significant deficiencies in the district’s reporting of physical restraint and seclusion data, inducing the state to conduct a management review of JCPS last summer. In February, Pruitt said that review uncovered 23 “significant deficiencies” related to matters including physical restraining of students, student-on-student sexual assault, low academic achievement and black students receiving long-term suspensions with a disproportionate and greater frequency than non-black students.

The multitude of severity of the deficiencies prompted Pruitt to order the management audit, which is a more in-depth examination of the local district. The state scrutiny accelerated the departure of the then-JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, who resigned in July.

The final audit is pending, but the severity of the noncompliance with state and federal law that the state has uncovered so far spurred Pruitt on Sept. 20 to demand that JCPS take immediate corrective action.

Pruitt’s letter marked the second time this year that a government agency has demanded that JCPS immediately take action to protect the health and safety of children: The Administration of Family and Children, which administers the Office of Head Start, issued a report recently that uncovered within the JCPS early childhood education program a culture of child abuse and neglect and threatened an emergency suspension of the program.

Potential loss of funding

In his Sept. 20 letter, Pruitt wrote that JCPS was violating:

  • The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006, a federal law aimed at increasing technical education.
  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities and ensures special education and related services to those children.
  • A state law that addresses the use of physical restraints and seclusion in public schools.

Pruitt wrote that state auditors had found apparent discrepancies related to student transcripts and attendance data and inaccurate documentation of career pathways. In addition, interviews indicate that staff lacked the knowledge and/or authority to implement the technical education program with accuracy.

The commissioner also wrote that the district was violating the disabilities law in numerous ways including that it:

  • “Lacks clear, district-wide processes and coordinated systems of accurate collection, reporting and utilization of student level behavior data.”
  • “Lacks a system to ensure disciplinary removals are consistent with … requirements.”
  • Fails to provide special transportation for all students with disabilities.
  • Fails to provide students with appropriate staff, including mental professionals.
  • Sometimes requires excessive bus rides.
  • Limits students’ ability to participate in extracurricular activities

Pruitt also wrote that the state had uncovered “a significant lack of understanding throughout the district regarding … use of physical restraints. As a result of this lack of understanding, the district maintains policies and procedures that are inconsistent with the regulation.”

For example, Pruitt wrote, school resource officers are not trained in positive behavioral supports and interventions.

“Interviews and observations indicate the prevalence of physical restraints such as mechanical, prone or supine restraints as well as unnecessary use of physical restraints and seclusions where the student’s behavior did not pose an imminent danger of physical harm to self or others,” Pruitt wrote.

The commissioner also wrote that if the issues were not addressed in identified timelines, the district might face a loss of state and/or federal funding.

Pruitt wrote that while the audit remains ongoing, he reserved “the right to continue utilizing my authority as chief state school officer to identify and require immediate corrective action of findings of violation of state or federal law that directly impact the health, safety and appropriate instruction of students.”

JCPS enhances training, oversight; adds staff

Marty Pollio

In its response, filed Tuesday, Pollio wrote that the district appreciated the KDE’s help and is “committed to implementing the corrective action plans with fidelity.”

The superintendent wrote that JCPS has identified corrective measures including:

  • The creation of written procedures and protocols
  • Enhanced staff training opportunities
  • The development of processes to assure the accuracy of data analysis and reporting
  • Using data analysis to provide support to schools
  • Continuing to work with KDE for technical assistance.

“Our immediate next steps include providing professional development to all of our principals regarding our corrective action plans in each area to establish common expectations on November 1, 2017,” Pollio wrote.

Pollio also sent the state a 19-page corrective action plan that included such measures as:

  • Designating at each school an administrator to coordinate compliance with the career and technical education law
  • Creating “new self-contained Emotional-Behavioral Disabilities (EBD) classrooms on the elementary level”
  • Using grant funds to hire more staff
  • Providing additional instructional space for students with disabilities
  • Providing door-to-door transportation for students attending the Kentucky School for the Deaf
  • Adding five school psychologist positions at middle schools
  • Developing a plan to make sure that all school resource officers receive training on positive behavioral supports and interventions

“We are committed to implementing the corrective action plans with fidelity and monitoring progress in order to ensure the district’s compliance and improvement strategies are impactful,” Pollio wrote.

The JCPS board plans to discuss Pruitt’s letter and the district’s response at its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.