Houston Public Media and The Texas Newsroom — a collaboration between NPR and public radio stations across the state — are looking into the shortfalls of the special education system in Texas, and we want to hear from you. We hope to shine a light on the lack of resources for families, the hardships faced by students and the enormous efforts of educators. Have a story? Share it with us. We will keep your information anonymous.
The Texas Education Agency denied re-approval in early January for a special education program at Avondale House, located in southwest Houston.
The specialized facility offers daytime and residential programs for kids and adults with cognitive disabilities, primarily autism. Avondale housed one of less than two dozen “nonpublic/off-campus” programs across the state approved by TEA. School districts can place high-needs special education students in those programs when in-district services are inadequate.
TEA notified Avondale on Jan. 9 that the school’s reapproval had been denied. The letter asserted that the agency’s monitoring revealed several problematic incidents, including “multiple instances of corporal punishment and/or threat of corporal punishment,” “use of force beyond what is reasonable and necessary, and restraints that do not protect the health and safety of the student, including one known restraint incident that resulted in physical injury.”
TEA’s letter said the findings were based on interviews with employees from Avondale and school districts, an unannounced in-person inspection in August, virtual monitoring in October and subsequent review of “restraint and incident reports, behavior logs for a sample of students, and over 30 hours of camera footage.”
In a statement to Houston Public Media, a TEA spokesperson wrote “Currently, school systems may not use federal, state, or local funds to place students at this facility. School systems were given 30 days to remove their students from the facility. That process remains ongoing.”
About 70 students are being relocated from Avondale. The school is attempting to regain its approval status.
In a written statement, Avondale CEO Steve Verano characterized the problems reported by TEA as a “few isolated incidents,” adding “we are alarmed and disappointed in their report and disagree with several of the instances of non-compliance cited against Avondale House.”
“Our leadership has spent the last several weeks trying to work directly with the TEA to reach an amicable solution that would keep our school in operation,” Verano wrote. “Unfortunately, they have not been willing to work with us putting our students and parents in an unfortunate position. We are actively responding with objections and are in the process of seeking legal action against the TEA with the goal of reinstating these much-needed services that Avondale House has been providing to the community for decades.”
Administrators from a charter network and 22 school districts — including the Houston Independent School District — were cc’d on TEA’s letter.
On Jan. 13, Houston ISD contacted the families of 26 students the district had placed at Avondale. A district spokesperson told Houston Public Media in a statement that staff members are “transition planning with parents and families of affected students to meet the deadline as outlined in the attached letter.”
Houston NBC affiliate KPRC 2 reported last year that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services launched an investigation into an alleged incident of abuse at the school in late August. DFPS told Houston Public Media on Thursday that the department’s Child Protective Services “completed two investigations related to Avondale House between January 1, 2022 and today,” but declined to comment on specifics due to concerns about confidentiality.
Verano said that both employees “have been terminated,” adding that the two incidents “do not represent the care associated with the Avondale House who puts the safety and well-being of our students as a top priority.”
Students like those in Avondale’s program at times exhibit aggressive behavior as a result of their disabilities, and off-campus programs are intended to provide safe environments for growth. But there’s a mismatch between the availability of off-campus program spots for new students and the demand from families. The sudden relocation of the Avondale students adds tension to an already stressed system.
In nearby Friendswood ISD, Heather Darcey has spent years advocating for improved services for her son, Logan, who has autism and dyslexia.
District staffers have restrained him multiple times due to aggressive behavior, which Darcey argues was made worse by the district’s decision to confine him in a classroom without other students for the duration of each school day. She also frequently received calls from the school requesting Logan be picked up early.
“He’s isolated and alone,” she said. “He doesn’t have any friends.”
Logan hasn’t attended school since October, while his mom seeks placement at an off-campus program. Friendswood ISD notified her of the situation at Avondale in mid-January, warning that it could impact the availability of spots for new students in other off-campus programs.
“There’s definitely a lot of anxiety,” she said. “When will Logan actually be back in school? When can this happen?”
Friendswood ISD declined to comment on individual cases. A spokesperson wrote, “FISD follows guidelines set forth by TEA relating to discipline and restraints. Ongoing training and resources are provided to staff on the implementation of supports that can mitigate the need for physical interventions. We aim to collaborate with parents in order to resolve concerns at the lowest possible level.”
School districts are required by federal law to provide a “free and appropriate public education” to students in special education, including funding placement in off-campus programs when needed. But families frequently have difficulty convincing districts to pay for those placements, sometimes leading to costly, protracted litigation. Even when families prevail, they face a shortage of available programs and long waiting lists.
Andrea Chevalier is governmental relations director with the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.
“There aren’t enough specialized centers like that,” she said. “Some of these larger districts have the ability to have a specialized campus where they can have people with very particular training that can work with children and work on deescalation, and keep them from being in situations where they’re potentially harming themselves or others. But unfortunately, the way that the funding system is set up for school districts sort of limits that capacity.”
In December, the Texas Commission on Special Education Funding reported that the state underfunded special education by nearly $2 billion.
In TEA’s letter to Avondale, the agency wrote “Avondale House may seek reconsideration of approval status after one year, pending successful submission of evidence of completion of the requirements listed in the Summary of Noncompliance, and assuming no new areas of noncompliance or student health, safety, or welfare concerns are identified by TEA or another licensing agency during the period of nonapproval.”
Avondale is seeking reconsideration so that it can resume regular operations sooner than Jan. 2024.
“We hope that the TEA will engage with Avondale House in good faith, and with appropriate steps, reconsider their decision, so that we can keep our school open to serve the school districts, families and communities who depend on our services,” Verano wrote. “Taking this opportunity away will adversely impact our students and their families.”