At an intense Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board meeting April 3rd, the school board heard a report — mandated by the City Council last year — on the findings of an independent evaluation of the district’s controversial Special Education Program.

The district’s policy of requiring parents of special education students to sign confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements was instituted about four years ago and has been met with much opposition.

In June, the City Council threatened to withhold approximately $500,000 in funding to the school district unless the district placed a moratorium on the policy and revisited the issue.

At the meeting April 3rd, the room was filled with emotion. Parents of special education children spoke out, sharing their stories and thoughts on the independent evaluation.

“Parents told their horror stories of how they were treated and it’s unfortunate that, somehow, we’ve lost empathy for these students and parents,” said school board president Oscar de la Torre. “I feel change is needed.

“The independent audit concerns what many parents have been saying for many years — that there’s a culture of fear and an adversarial relationship between some administrators, directors of Special Education, educators and our parent communities.”

The independent evaluation was conducted by Lou Barber and Associates and the consultants presented their report to the school board among a room full of special education parents.

“The special education audit is something that’s important to me, I feel very strongly about and I take very seriously,” said board member Kelly Pye. “I intend to make certain that the report guides us in formulating and implementing an action plan to improve our special education services to the students and families we serve.”

From December to March, the consultants worked on the report and interviewed district staff, teachers, community members, principals and 100 parents of special education children, who were provided immunity from their confidentiality agreements.

They used comparative data from several other school districts, including Culver City Unified and Beverly Hills Unified School District.

The report addressed 17 major issues in special education.

While the report commended the district on many issues, the study did note several concerns — including the fact that confidentiality clauses create a sense of “secret deals and unequal treatment of students and families.”

The consultants found that the district needs to “create a culture of much more transparency and openness in dealing with the students and families.”

“The use of settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses needs to be reduced dramatically,” the consultants said.

De la Torre agreed.

“I’ve been against confidentiality from the beginning, because I believe in government that’s accountable to the people and transparent in its dealings,” he said.

There are over 1,500 special education students being served by the district and dozens of these students are receiving services under settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses.

The district has entered into over 140 such agreements since the policy was put in place.

The consultants found that the district “utilizes settlement agreements to a much greater extent than other districts in the area. This has become an established practice that is initiated almost immediately upon a disagreement at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team level. The district must significantly decrease the usage of settlement agreements.”

Additionally, the consultants found that the use of confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements is legal and considered common practice, but recommended that the school board and Superintendent Dianne Talarico “provide clear direction that the use of settlement agreements are to be used only on rare occasions.”

The consultants also recommended that special education administrators be trained to ensure that all staff and parents are treated with “civility and respect” — and that special education be seen as an integral part of the total educational system and not as a separate entity that has been marginalized.

“I take this report very seriously,” said Pye. “I want to see us move forward in this area.”

District staff intends to come back to the board with a response and direction as soon as possible.