A former top special education administrator in the Rochester City School District improperly changed the dates on student records and falsified documents to make it seem that parents had been consulted about services for their children, when in fact they had not been, according to an internal investigation.
The administrator, Dan Fontanez, resigned October 21. That is one day after the investigative report, obtained by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network, through a Freedom of Information request, was completed.
Chief of Special Education and Related Services Kisha Morgan, meanwhile, resigned from RCSD Jan. 13 after having been on administrative leave.
This most recent chapter in RCSD’s special education troubles began in the fall of 2019, after a consultant observed that someone apparently had improperly changed the dates on some students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) in order to align them with Medicaid billing requirements.
That tip was forwarded to the state Education Department as well and resulted in a monitoring review. In September 2020, RCSD directed one of its own internal investigators to see whether Fontanez, one of two top deputies in the special education department, had altered student records.
Changed 153 student plans
The investigator, Tom Janssen, found 153 students whose records Fontanez had altered illegally by changing the IEP end date to match the prescription for Medicaid services. All were done over a single weekend in October 2019.
When a colleague told him that doing so would be illegal, according to Janssen’s report, Fontanez replied, “the State will never know.”
Fontanez told Janssen that the decision to change the IEPs was not his. Instead he said someone else, whose name was redacted in the report, made the decision, but that he carried it out himself with a direct prompt.
“When asked if (redacted) ordered him to make the changes … Fontanez stated that she did not, he knew he would be able to make the changes fast, as he is really good with the system, so he made the changes over a weekend,” the report states.
Fontanez admitted he hadn’t sent letters notifying parents of the changes, according to the report, saying it “has not been the process of the District” to do so. It is in fact federal law that such notice be provided.
State Education Department officials also had flagged cases where students’ IEPs were changed without parents having been asked for input. Janssen found one instance in 2018 where Fontanez created a false paper trail allegedly demonstrating four attempts to contact a parent regarding their child’s IEP.
Fontanez could not be reached for comment, and RCSD declined to comment on the report.
When asked about potential criminal charges, RCSD General Counsel Steve Carling said that decision would be up to state prosecutors, and that he wasn’t aware of anything pending.
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Morgan was placed on administrative leave in late October, the same time Fontanez resigned.
In an interview Tuesday, she said she resigned in order to pursue other opportunities. She noted that the Fontanez investigation found no wrongdoing on her part and pointed instead to the accomplishments of her tenure, which began the same week as the death of 14-year-old special education student Trevyan Rowe.
On March 8, 2020, Rowe never entered school even though several of his teachers falsely marked him present for the day. He then made his way to a bridge downtown, fell into the Genessee River and died. His body was found several days later after a massive community search.
Under Morgan, the district put in place protocols to prevent another such tragedy from occurring and also worked to reduce racial disproportionality in suspensions and special education classification.
“I took over at an extremely difficult time for the department with the loss of Trevyan, and the work my team did is significant,” she said. “I pray for the students (in Rochester) and pray the work I began there continues.”
Morgan’s resignation comes at the same time the district and Empire Justice Center finally announced in public their imminent settlement of a federal consent decree to guide improvements in special education.
Failure to properly inform parents of changes to their children’s IEPs was one of the many long-standing issues the consent decree is meant to resolve.
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