BenitoLink Special Report

BL Special Report: Hollister School District noncompliant with state and federal special ed law

Consultant cites leadership problems and offers solutions.
Interim HSD Superintendent William Barr told Shepherd he knew something was wrong with the special education program, just not what. Photo by John Chadwell.
HSD Board President Stephen Kain said Shepherd's report was marching orders to move forward. Photo by John Chadwell.
HSD Board Trustee Rob Bernosky said a FCMAT report was hidden away and former Superintendent Lisa Andrew acted on its recommendations after it was discovered. Photo by John Chadwell.
HSD Superintendent Diego Ochoa speaking at a Jan. 7 meet and greet at HSD facilities. In regards to the independent investigation into special ed, Ochoa said “Our Dr. Shepherd has brought to light many important issues; among them, the need to adhere to services offered in all IEPs, the need to fully staff our special education department, the need to provide high quality special education training, and the need to work effectively with parents." Photo by John Chadwell.

An independent investigation conducted by a private consultant has found the Hollister School District (HSD) Special Education Program to be out of compliance with state and federal law. The California Department of Education (CDE) could take over the special education program entirely or cut funding if the district does not accomplish specific tasks that CDE demands. More management staffing and better communication with families—particularly Hispanic families—were the primary recommendations coming out of the report presented at the Jan. 8 Hollister School District meeting.

After hearing concerns from parents, teachers, advocates, staff and union representatives that HSD’s special education program was being mismanaged and even operating outside the law, interim Superintendent William Barr recommended the board hire consultant Marilyn Shepherd at a cost of $10,000 to investigate the program.

“My task was to look at the issue from a global perspective, what is causing these problems,” said Shepherd, a former Monterey Peninsula Unified School District superintendent who has a special needs daughter. “We keep getting these complaints, so what are the system issues that are causing people to have to file complaints? That’s why Dr. Barr said, ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ and wanted me to look at the big picture.”

Three separate, but related, investigations were carried out concerning HSD’s special education program from 2014 to 2018.

First investigation

In 2014, a lawsuit (Leyva vs. Hollister School District) was filed on behalf of a deaf, non-English speaking and autistic special education student, according to Ruderman and Knox, a Sacramento law firm that handles special education cases. As the lawsuit progressed, a Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) investigation determined there were over 40 issues (see PDF below) with the special education program. Before the lawsuit was eventually settled for nearly $400,000, Superintendent Gary L. McIntyre retired in December 2015.

Based on the FCMAT and the Special Education Task Force (SETF) recommendations, in March 28, 2017, HSD made cuts to classified employees in order to help drive the reallocation and reorganization of the special education department, according to the task force. During the March meeting, district occupational therapist Steve Briansky foretold what would eventually come to pass: the district could possibly become non-compliant because the limited staff would not be able to provide services students needed.

“It hurts the students, the number one thing, and also sets us up for a lot of litigation,” he said during public comments at the March 2017 meeting.

Second investigation

In March 2018, after a parent filed a complaint with the California Department of Education, the department investigated the complaint and in its Feb. 23, 2018 report (see PDF below) recommended six corrective actions for the district to achieve by Nov. 1. Among the demands, Hollister School District must complete all special education assessments resulting from a parent’s request, complete a signed assessment plan, and convene an IEP (individualized education programs) team meeting within 60 days of the signed assessment plan to review the results of the assessment. Neither CDE nor Shepherd responded to BenitoLink queries about whether all the tasks had been completed by Nov. 1.

As part of that probe a year ago, CDE interviewed 21 parents from eight schools. According to the report, Hollister School District “did not systematically seek out all individuals” with exceptional needs and failed to follow the Student Success Team process to determine if special education assessments were needed. CDE concluded that the district failed to meet state requirements and denied parents’ requests for special education assessment.

Third investigation

Following Superintendent Barr’s directive, Shepherd began her investigation Oct. 2018 and interviewed approximately 20 teachers, union representatives and parents, in addition to reviewing documents including the FCMAT and CDE reports.

“The biggest issue was a breakdown in communications between the special education administrator, the staff, community and parents,” Shepherd told BenitoLink by phone, referring to Hollister School District Special Education Director Richard “Rick” Lust. “Some of it was inappropriate communication or there was no response to questions from parents. Communications were unclear, if there was any at all.”

After delivering her report (see PDF below) on Jan. 8, Shepherd recommended that the board make sure there were enough qualified “managers” in the special education department to do the work. She said accountability within the department was also lacking.

“With no director, there’s no oversight,” Shepherd said. “They have to get out there and aggressively recruit good people.”

Shepherd described the problem with Lust’s leadership style as “being who he is” after he violated state-mandated procedures for conducting individualized education programs that evaluate students and determine if they needed special education assistance. Once he did that, Shepherd said, Hollister School District was out of compliance and, in essence, breaking federal and state laws. If not corrected, she said the state could take over the program or withhold funding.

“It was his directive that they used a process that was definitely in violation of regulations,” she said. “The district is having to take a lot of corrective actions that the state is imposing upon it. As a result, the district has now assessed [additional] students and is having to provide services to those kids that they missed in the timeframe they were not assessed.”

Can special ed be fixed?

On the district’s organizational chart, Shepherd said Lust reported to Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Wildman. But in actuality, she explained, he reported directly to former Superintendent Lisa Andrew, who abruptly resigned in June. Lust resigned Dec. 31 and has not yet been replaced. He is currently listed as the assistant special education director at the Fremont Unified School District. Lust did not respond to request for comment.

Shepherd said Barbara Brown, coordinator of HSD special education, is currently the program’s acting administrator.

“Many of the things that happened over the last couple years were more of a directive of the superintendent [Andrew] to the director of special education [Lust],” Shepherd said. “Dr. Andrew did inherit a system from her predecessor [Gary McIntyre] that had gone awry and subsequent decisions made it more challenging that resulted in where we are today.”

She continued: “I don’t know if you can ever fix special ed. It’s a very intense and costly program because it’s so uniquely tied to the individual student. Of those 700-plus kids that you have in special ed in Hollister, each has specific needs. It’s an intense, emotional department because you’re dealing with parents whose children have special needs, and sometimes they don’t feel, as educators, we understand. I have a special needs daughter, so I know that feeling.”

Shepherd said Lust’s actions directly affected 13 students, 12 of whom were Hispanic. She explained the disproportionate number of Hispanic students involved could be explained by the higher percentage of Hispanics in the community.

HSD trustee Rob Bernosky told BenitoLink by email he agreed with Shepherd’s findings that there was an overall breakdown in communication.

“In hindsight, the district should have separated special education in management and reporting, which would have led to more precise reporting and more questions being asked by at least this board member,” Bernosky said. “Dr. Andrew, as a new superintendent [hired in May 2016, two years after the FCMAT report was delivered], was handed the original rotten egg.”

Bernosky claimed the FCMAT report was “tucked away in a desk drawer” and that Andrew acted on it immediately once it was discovered.

“The discovery was made by Dr. Andrew, right before I was elected,” Bernosky told BenitoLink on Feb. 7. “She had me come in and explained the situation to me then.”

Asked why no one appeared to remember the report, he said, “I can imagine that it has to do with the culture of our district and the governing board. My observation is we spend too much time over minutiae instead of focusing on the bigger issues.”

He added: “But her focus was seemingly on the financial aspect of it.”

Getting back on track

With the hiring of Diego Ochoa as the new HSD superintendent, Bernosky said the district is on the right path and he feels there is a need to add resources, particularly in the district office to improve communications.

Shepherd said one of the first things Ochoa needs to do is hire a new special education director right away and put policies and procedures in place to ensure the staff are doing their jobs correctly and are accountable. She said these measures are “not rocket science,” and that the state provides Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) templates or standard procedures, that can be customized to local needs.

“Right now, there’s nothing like that,” Shepherd said.

Ochoa told BenitoLink on Jan. 27 that one of the reasons he chose to pursue the Hollister School District superintendent position was the opportunity to work in a district that needed to focus on special education.

“Our Dr. Shepherd has brought to light many important issues; among them, the need to adhere to services offered in all IEPs, the need to fully staff our special education department, the need to provide high quality special education training, and the need to work effectively with parents,” Ochoa said.

HSD Board President Stephen Kain said that to him, Shepherd’s report represented “marching orders.” He said he would like to revisit the report in two or three months to ensure progress is being made.

Interim Superintendent Barr commented that somewhere along the line special education “spun off course.”

“It’s not a money issue,” Barr said. “There’s a moral obligation; there’s a legal obligation; there’s an educational obligation… It’s a new day. There’s hope and opportunity. From this point forward, we’re going to start doing things differently. It can’t be done overnight, but there should be progress, weekly.”

Respect for Hispanic families

Kim Taylor, a Hollister-based special education advocate, told Ochoa during a meet-and-greet at HSD on Jan. 7 that the community did not trust the district. She said Latino families with special education children have been taken advantage of.

“Special ed and the Latino community do not have equal representation,” Taylor said at the time. “There would not be the numerous problems if they had been respected.”

Parent Susan Villa, whose adopted daughter has gone through the special education program, agreed with Taylor, saying parents don’t trust anyone in the district.

“My little special ed community is so important and I’m tired of it getting thrown aside,” Villa said. “Especially the Hispanic families. We can’t even get the district to translate for us. We have family members coming in hoping someone can translate.”

At a recent League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) event introducing Ochoa to the community, guests expressed optimism about having a Spanish-speaking superintendent to communicate with.

“I feel honor that we do have a Latino there, that can speak to them and help them,” said Nena Sanchez of students who struggle with English. “Because a lot of times they feel like they are not smart enough and that’s [why] we have a lot of dropouts or kids don’t get involved with other kids because sometimes they feel they are not part of the community.”

This BenitoLink Special Report is the culmination of several years of research, interviews and pouring over documents and reports by BenitoLink reporters. This article by BL Reporter John Chadwell looks into ongoing special education issues within the Hollister School District stretching back to 2014. BL Special Reports are made possible thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and individual donors in the community. If you would like us to continue this kind of time-consuming and dedicated reporting, please consider donating to BenitoLink.

Other related BenitoLink articles:

COMMENTARY: Teacher resigns over district’s alleged mistreatment of special education students

Federal lawsuit claims autistic student was mistreated

Hollister School District board makes cuts to special education

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected].