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Thousands Of Dallas ISD Students Haven't Gotten Special Ed Services They Need, District Concedes

Top School Bus window on a neighborhood street surrounded by trees.
Javier Renes

The school district says it expected that some qualified students weren't getting special education services because of last year's pandemic shutdown. But the problem is worse than expected and began years before the COVID-19 closures.

The Dallas Independent School District said Friday that it has failed to serve more than 2,000 students with disabilities going back to the 2017-18 school year.

The announcement came after an internal investigation by the district.

Dallas ISD deputy chief of Teaching and Learning Derek Little said the district expected to find some unserved students because of last year’s March through August pandemic shutdown. When schools closed, students weren’t able to get evaluations, which are needed for services. But Little said the problem went deeper than that — it was systemic.

“We have not always had adequate progress monitoring structures in place to receive referrals and to ensure they’re processed effectively and quickly," Little said.

Dustin Rynders, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas, was shocked by the news.

“Our office has a lawsuit against Austin ISD because we were shocked to learn they were 900 evaluations behind,” Rynders said. “To hear Dallas ISD has twice that number of students who should’ve been evaluated several years ago is nothing short of appalling.”

Little said the district has work to do finding and evaluating those students who have special education needs but received no services in recent years. He acknowledged some probably dropped out or left the district.

“We will go back and provide additional services that have been missed if the student is owed those services or therapies. We’re not just going to start services fresh in the fall," Little said. "We’ll also go and provide owed service or compensatory time to the students that have been missed the past couple of years.”

Little saidthere’s no time to waste. He said the district is committed to transparency in efforts to eliminate the backlog, and will spend $1 million to help solve the problem it created.

“We’re going to aggressively start a hiring campaign for some key positions, including licensed school psychologists, where we’ll offer signing bonuses and retention bonuses to those key roles who are vital to this evaluation process,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rynders said he’ll evaluate the district.

“Any plan will not only need to expedite the evaluations at this point but also provide for compensatory education," he said. "There also needs to be a hard look at what allowed this to occur. I mean, that’s a degree of dysfunction within a department that isn’t easily remedied.”

Rynders said Disability Rights Texas will work with the Dallas ISD qualified students get the special education services they need and are legally entitled to. The district says it’s starting the catch-up work now. The effort could take months —into September, according to Little.

Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.

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Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.