Superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick of SAD 70. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HODGDON, Maine — The Hodgdon school district violated state regulations on providing proper education programs and parental consent for 13 special education students, according to an independent investigation.

Maine School Administration District 70 has 30 days to determine whether the students will require additional evaluations and if their current placement in classrooms is appropriate, as mandated by the Department of Education, which launched the investigation. The district also needs to determine if any extra services are necessary to make up for the students’ time in the unauthorized individual education programs.

The findings cap an investigation spurred by allegations that the school had altered special needs students’ individual lesson plans without getting proper parental consent beforehand. Teachers of the school had brought the complaint to the DOE, believing the new programs had a negative impact on the students’ mental health and academic performance.

“It really saddens us to have to go to this point to advocate for our students,” Renee Smith, co-president of the MSAD 70 Education Association, said. “We really didn’t want to have to go to these extremes to get our students the services they deserve, but we were kind of forced to do so.”

The DOE found MSAD 70 repeatedly violated the Maine Unified Special Education Regulations. The violations listed in the report include creating individual education programs for special needs students without first consulting parents and holding a meeting as required, not considering the concerns parents may have about the new programs, not obtaining parental agreement for modification, not providing proper written notice and not properly developing the programs.

The district includes the Mill Pond School and Hodgdon Middle/High School in the southern Aroostook town of Hodgdon. Students from the school also come from the neighboring towns of Amity, Haynesville, Linneus, Ludlow and New Limerick in addition to Hodgdon.

The district will not face any financial disciplinary action as a result of the violations, but parents may request that their children be reassessed or have additional programming, school Superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick said.

“Since this report has come out, we have redoubled our efforts. We have sent letters out to every one of [the parents of] the 13 [students] identified, because the state wanted that to occur,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are in the process now of scheduling meetings and making sure they understand exactly what is going on.”

The investigation came after members of the MSAD 70 Education Association filed a complaint with the department alleging that special education director Sandy Flacke and Fitzpatrick had altered special education students’ Individual Education Programs without holding formal meetings or informing parents beforehand, as is required.

Flacke, who became director in the 2019-20 school year and also directs the neighboring Houlton school district’s special ed program, told investigators she was updating the school’s special education program to put greater consideration into the students’ individual needs and abilities. Flacke also told them that she had not sent written notifications of the new individual plans to parents before they officially took effect, according to the investigation’s findings.

Flacke blamed the delay on the amount of paperwork involved and having to navigate the process during the pandemic. Because testing evaluations for the students were also delayed due to the pandemic, the district had to rely on older data to determine the new plans.

Fitzpatrick said that parents had been notified before the new education plans went into effect, but only in informal telephone conversations. Regulations require a complete understanding of what the new program contains and written notice before a new Individual Education Program can take effect.

“[The investigator] did conclude that the district did not always establish a clear enough agreement with every one of those involved parents regarding the decision to move a particular child into that more inclusive setting,” Fitzpatrick said. “While on one hand we took care of their individual rights regarding that least restrictive environment, our procedure and written documentation suffered and needed to be improved.”

Special needs students saw a discontinuation of their specially designed instruction as a result of the new plans and spent more time in regular classroom settings, sometimes to the detriment of the students and the classroom teachers involved, the investigation found.

One teacher, whose name is redacted from the investigation report, said she was only given a few days’ notice before 10 new special needs students joined her classroom, and did not have any plans or documentation to show on what academic levels the students were. She said that one of the new students consistently exhibited disruptive behavior to the point where other students couldn’t sit next to him, and that it significantly interfered with the teaching of the other students.

Another teacher described one of her new students as suffering from anxiety, which affected his ability to perform in class. She said he frequently did not attend class and described him as being like a “fish out of water” when he did attend.

While the report found that the district was right to put some of the students in the less restrictive settings, it found there was a subgroup of 13 special needs students that raised significant questions about the appropriateness of changing their education plans.

One of the students, identified as Student 3, had their original plan of 400 minutes per week of specially designed instruction reduced to 90 minutes in direct instruction in the regular classroom. Student 8 was identified as having 1,125 minutes per week in subjects such as math and English. He was reduced to intervention five times every two weeks in the regular classroom setting, for a total of 150 minutes.

Investigators also reached out to several parents who raised concerns about how the school implemented the new education plans.

One mother, whose daughter with a learning disability had her plan changed from 450 minutes per week of specially designed instruction to 69 minutes on a biweekly basis, said the changes were not what was best for her daughter. She decided to homeschool her daughter instead.

Another parent said she was told the change in her child’s program was what the district was applying to the whole group, and was not informed that the changes were in fact being based on supposed individual needs. She also said that her child had anxiety and depression, and with regards to the new program she “absolutely feels it was too much. … It was a very stressful and difficult year.”