Killeen ISD denies it fired deaf students’ interpreters; documents show otherwise

KISD denies it fired deaf students’ interpreters; documents show otherwise

By Lauren Dodd | Herald staff writer December 4, 2022

Note: Killeen, Texas is about one hour away between Waco and Austin, Texas

A deaf Harker Heights High School student had a health emergency on campus Tuesday when her blood sugar reached 400, something her mother warned might happen after her sign language interpreter was abruptly fired.

“This is totally unacceptable,” Jennifer Evangelista, mother of the Heights High sophomore, said by phone Wednesday. “She has a number of health issues, including epilepsy, so when my daughter feels stressed, with a lot of anxiety — that starts to mess around with her sugar levels.”

The stress of being unable to communicate at school, she said, causes her daughter physical health problems.

Without her interpreter, Evangelista said her child has not wanted to go back to school.

“Something needs to be done, and fast,” she said.

The family is not alone.

Dozens of deaf or hard of hearing students attending the Killeen Independent School District’s Regional Day School Program for the Deaf, in Harker Heights and Killeen, lost their means of communication — their one-on-one sign language interpreters — also known as SLIs, before Thanksgiving break.

The district denied responsibility for the termination of the interpreters on Friday; however, internal email communication obtained by the Herald contradicts KISD’s public statement.


Vanessa Bryant, a former sign language interpreter with Killeen ISD for more than five years, said the Heights High staff, and her assigned student, were blindsided by the news of her termination on Nov. 18 the last school day before the Thanksgiving holiday.

According to data provided by the district Friday, Killeen ISD had 19 sign-language interpreters for its students requiring one-on-one interpreters at the start of November, but by the end of the month five remained.

During her lunch hour on Nov. 18, Bryant received communication from her contract agency, Community Rehab Associates, Inc., based out of St. Petersburg, Florida, informing her to turn her KISD badge in at the end of the day.

Harker Heights High School
Harker Heights High School, 1001 E. Farm-to-Market 2410 Road, was seen Saturday. Heights High is one of three campuses that houses Killeen ISD’s Regional Day School Program for the Deaf. On Nov. 18, Killeen ISD terminated more than a dozen sign language interpreters leaving some students without the ability to communicate. Lauren Dodd | Herald

“I told my student, ‘Hey, I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but I won’t be here Monday when you come back from Thanksgiving,” she said.

The interpreter said her student had a “breakdown” in the hallway upon learning the new information. Bryant had worked one-on-one with this particular student for more than three years.

“They (deaf students) live in a silent world,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you’re the only communication they get.”

Bryant grew up with two deaf parents, so as a hearing child, she would frequently interpret for her family.

“It just hurts,” she said. “I’m sure she feels very, very excluded in several ways. Her voice is gone. Her voice is gone.”

Last week, Bryant said a few Heights High coworkers reached out about her student.

“The first text I got was, ‘Where are you? She’s upset. Is there anything I can do?,’” she said, with her voice audibly breaking. “I was like, ‘I was told I can’t come back after Thanksgiving.’ The response from them was pretty much, ‘How is this legal?’”

The interpreter said she is concerned about her student’s mental health and her future educational success.

“I feel like special education kids always get stuck at the bottom of the barrel,” she said. “It’s all terrible. To me, the problem is that the deaf kids are underneath the barrel. They are even more overlooked. We were their voice that made them known, heard, and I’m at home now.”

Bryant said she was given a matter of days to receive a certification that would take about a year to complete, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic caused an extra backlog in testing.

Eastern Hills Middle School
Eastern Hills Middle School, 300 Indian Trail in Harker Heights, is one of three campuses that house Killeen ISD’s Regional Day School Program for the Deaf. On Nov. 18, Killeen ISD terminated more than a dozen sign language interpreters leaving some students without the ability to communicate. Lauren Dodd | Herald

Bryant questioned why the KISD sign language interpreters didn’t get two years to fulfill the certification requirements like teachers do.

As of mid-October, KISD employed more than 200 uncertified teachers on staff. In Texas, uncertified teachers are allowed to have two years to get certified while teaching students, thanks to Texas Education Agency waivers, as long as they can prove they’ve begun their certification process. The same consideration was not given to the district’s interpreters, Bryant and other interpreters said.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act says ‘qualified’ not ‘certified,’” Bryant said. “So you’re saying 35 years of sign language is not enough qualification? Sixteen years professional experience, and that’s not enough qualification?”

The interpreter emphasized that she is more concerned about the students than she is about her former job.

“Everybody (at Heights High) is pretty much floored with this,” she said. “Those people saw me every day for almost six years. Now, they see my student crying and upset. She’s inconsolable.”

Multiple other interpreters shared similar termination stories, and documentation, but asked the Herald to protect their identity for fear of retaliation from KISD administrators.

Timber Ridge Elementary School
Timber Ridge Elementary School, 5402 White Rock Drive in Killeen, was seen Saturday. The school is one of three campuses that houses Killeen ISD’s Regional Day School Program for the Deaf. On Nov. 18, Killeen ISD terminated more than a dozen sign language interpreters leaving some students without the ability to communicate. Lauren Dodd | Herald

How it started

Over the Thanksgiving break and the week afterwards, the Herald received numerous calls from sources, some claiming 500 deaf students were without their interpreters. On Friday, the district responded to the Herald’s Wednesday inquiry clarifying KISD’s deaf program serves 74 deaf or hard-of-hearing students — not 500 — 26 of whom require one-on-one interpreters at school.

As of Friday, five sign language interpreters remain to service 26 KISD students in need of one-on-one services.

KISD spokeswoman Taina Maya said the district did not terminate their interpreters but rather “reminded” their contract companies that the interpreters needed to be “certified,” causing many to not return after the holiday. Maya said KISD would hire the interpreters back if they become certified.

“Killeen ISD has reminded contractors that all interpreters need to be certified interpreters,” Maya wrote in response to the Herald’s questions. “Thus, several contracted interpreters did not return after the district reminded the contractors of their agreement to the district.”

However, internal email communication between KISD Special Education Director Janice Peronto and dozens of central administration staff members, including Superintendent John Craft, explained the termination differently than Maya’s public statement.

KISD Janice Peronto Killeen Independent School District Executive Director of Special Education Janice Peronto. Herald | File

“… I have communicated with our contracted and direct SLIs that are not certified that their employment with the district will be terminated in this role until certification is obtained,” Peronto wrote in an email obtained by the Herald sent to staff at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 17. “The SLIs may not have received word yet as their companies will be in contact with them. In the event that they reach out to you, I didn’t want you blind sided by this new requirement. I also don’t expect you to break the news as this will come from their company and KISD.”

The Texas Education Agency’s website states schools that provide interpreter services “must ensure” interpreters be certified through either the Texas Board of Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI) or the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) tests; however, state and national disability experts say state and federal law only specify the interpreters be “qualified,” which may include certification, or a combination of school and professional experience working with deaf populations.

In Peronto’s Nov. 17 email, she cited reasons for the mass termination not included in KISD’s public statements.

The director said the district was “reminded” during a Deaf and Hard of Hearing audit, of “federal regulations 300.156,” Texas Education Code 21.002, 21.003 and 29.304, that all sign language interpreters need to be certified.

“In addition, we also learned, through the audit, that KISD is overserving and providing excessive support which can be scaled down in areas,” Peronto’s Nov. 17 email said.

The director said KISD coordinator Malcolm Mahoney was working “with a company that can provide virtual support, as this seems to be the new and upcoming delivery method.”

“I’m sharing this with you so that you are aware of these forthcoming changes and for your assistance in helping us assign our resources adequately,” her email stated. “While we transition, please ask the teachers working with the students needing SLI services to monitor their students academics and to call an ARD (arrival, review and dismissal meeting) if grades or regression is noted. Again, we were cited for having too much SLI support, so hopefully this won’t be an issue.”

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Winter 2022_2023 Training Schedule (Download PDF format)

An October review performed by Education Service Center Region 11 consultants, issued ‘considerations’ to Killeen ISD regarding its day school program for deaf and hard of hearing students. On Nov. 18, Killeen ISD terminated more than a dozen sign language interpreters due to a lack of state certification. Courtesy | Herald

On Friday, the Herald obtained a copy of the district’s latest “program review” dated Oct. 6, titled, ‘RDSPD (Regional Day School Program for the Deaf) Program Review Continuous Improvement Process Summary of Efforts,” which KISD referred to as the audit.

A review of the 127-page document found “considerations” from Education Service Center 11 consultant Anne Darr, and Program Review Facilitator Angela Belding, along with survey results from staff and parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but nowhere in the document did it recommend the district fire the majority of its interpreting staff, without a backup plan, leaving children without the ability to communicate.

“Appalled” reaction

When asked for comment last week, the National Association of the Deaf issued a statement on Friday saying it was “appalled” to learn of the situation at Killeen ISD; urging parents of students affected by their interpreters’ removals to contact the organization.

“Under federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, school districts are obligated to provide qualified sign language interpreters to deaf and hard of hearing students who require them in their educational placement,” Howard A. Rosenblum, the association’s CEO said in a statement to the Herald. “We are concerned that the school district may believe it has found other cheaper options for communication access, but such options are usually ineffective for K-12 education. We encourage any families in Killeen that feel their deaf or hard of hearing children are not receiving effective communication through their school to contact the NAD to explore ways to restore the previously provided qualified interpreters.”

Timber Ridge Elementary School
A sign at Timber Ridge Elementary School, 5402 White Rock Drive in Killeen, was seen Saturday. The school is one of three campuses that houses Killeen ISD’s Regional Day School Program for the Deaf. On Nov. 18, Killeen ISD terminated more than a dozen sign language interpreters leaving some students without the ability to communicate. Lauren Dodd | Herald

Disability Rights Texas attorney Steven Aleman said the state’s education code does not require interpreters be certified to work in a public school district, but rather the word that is used is ‘qualified.’

“The bottom line is that students who are deaf have just as much of a right to public education, and to receive individualized special education services, as any other student with a disability,” Aleman said by phone Friday.

“The state law I shared with you, Chapter 29.304 is probably the most specific provision on that point in that school districts have a duty to provide qualified personnel in all respects when it comes to meeting the needs of students who are deaf.”

Aleman explained qualified could mean an interpreter was certified, but it wasn’t a requirement by law.

“The education code provision just uses the word qualified,” he said. “Typically, what we understand that to mean is both by experience, training, licensure, or any combination of elements in their background could make them come into compliance with that Texas Education Code provision.”

The attorney said there isn’t a particular timeline under KISD must find replacement interpreters under state law, but, said it should be done “fairly promptly,” especially if the need for a one-on-one interpreter is listed in the child’s individualized education plan.

“The school district isn’t entitled to claim, ‘We can’t find someone’ or ‘We can’t afford that,’ those are not legal excuses to not meet the needs of a student who is deaf,” he said.

Aleman laid out ways parents can seek recourse for their children at the state and federal levels.

“Needless to say, it sounds like multiple violations of federal and state law, but the way the system works is the parents have to complain,” he said. “The parents have to bring legal action against the district. It’s not as if the police are going to come by and ask, ‘Are there interpreters here?’ Sadly, they (parents) have to raise the issue themselves with the proper authorities and the authorities are the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.”

Aleman urged parents to contact Disability Rights Texas for legal assistance.

“We provide free, legal services to people with disabilities whose rights are being denied,” he said. “Those parents are more than welcome, and encouraged, to contact Disability Rights Texas requesting our free legal assistant to get them the help they need.”


Deaf KISD students went to school for three days without their interpreters before the district sent out official communication to parents.

Click here to view full size image

Nov. 30 KISD letter to parents Killeen ISD informed parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing students on Nov. 30 interpreters were “relieved of their duties.” Courtesy | Herald

On Wednesday evening, Nov. 30, parents received an emailed letter from the district’s special education director.

“Killeen Independent School District is dedicated to maintaining a strong partnership with parents in our effort to provide the very best education for students,” Peronto said in her letter to parents Nov. 30 — the same day the Herald sent questions to KISD on the issue. “Because of the rapid growth of the district, we are experiencing vacancies with Sign Language Interpreters (SLIs). Please know that we are working daily to attract and hire qualified SLIs to serve our KISD students. Of recent, some of our SLIs were relieved from duties due to not meeting the standards of having the required certifications as outlined by state and federal regulations.”

As of Saturday, it is still unclear as to why KISD did not notify parents of the change the day the interpreters were terminated.

Evangelista, the mother of the deaf Harker Heights student, was in tears Friday as she described the day her daughter’s blood sugar reached diabetic coma levels.

“At 400 she could easily go into a diabetic coma and it could trigger her epilepsy,” Evangelista said, explaining her daughter’s blood sugar can spike when she has high anxiety. Not being able to communicate in school — be it educationally, socially, or in emergency situations — is stress-inducing which then triggers a number of her serious health conditions, Evangelista said.

The single mother said her only child is her life, and her education and health is her utmost concern.

“I am her advocate, I am her mother, I am her voice, I will fight to the end for my daughter’s rights,” she said. “That’s my life, that little girl right there. She’s my everything and I’m not going to allow this to happen to my kid.”

Renecia Harrisruffin, the mother of a third-grade Timber Ridge Elementary School student receiving interpreter services, said she wished the district had given parents and staff more notice.

“I feel like before they let those people go, the district should’ve had a plan in place,” said Harrisruffin, a Copperas Cove educator. She added she will be filing a complaint with the Texas Education Agency.

“Those interpreters had no notice,” she said. “Shame on you, KISD. I hope the district is happy that they are failing these students. This is not right.”

As of Friday, Harrisruffin’s daughter is still going to school, but is not receiving deaf educational services.

“Why wasn’t certification a problem all these other years?,” she said. “Can you imagine how lost these kiddos are feeling right now?”

The Herald reached KISD board president Brett Williams for comment on Friday, at which point he said he did not know anything about the fired interpreters and would need until Saturday to provide a statement. On Saturday afternoon, he called the Herald back and said he was unable to make a statement.

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