Federal probe to look at whether or not Seattle Faculties failed particular ed college students throughout pandemic
The US Department of Education has launched an investigation into so-called “disruptive reports” of Seattle Public Schools’ alleged failure to provide special education to students with disabilities during the pandemic.
In a letter to Superintendent Denise Juneau, the agency’s civil rights bureau said the investigation was spurred by a KUOW story of the lack of special education after schools closed last March, including teachers who were specifically directed to Not tailoring distance learning to the needs of students with disabilities.
“OCR is concerned that the district has failed to provide” free adequate public education “to every qualified student with a disability, as required by federal law, and denied equal access to education for students with disabilities,” wrote Kimberley M. Richey, the assistant assistant secretary for civil rights.
At a board meeting on Wednesday, Juneau said the district will follow up the investigation and defend the district’s records.
“We would like to stress the same thing that is in the OCR letter, that an investigation does not in any way indicate a violation,” said Juneau.
“We have had instructions from and will continue to follow them since the beginning of the pandemic [the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction]. Since March, the district has adjusted every time state guidelines have changed, ”Juneau said.
Education attorney Charlotte Cassady said while the district may have acted in accordance with state guidelines for special education during the pandemic, “This does not mean that guidance from the Superintendent of Public Instruction follows federal law for students with special needs.”
Ultimately, the district is responsible for compliance with federal law, and Cassady said it appears to have fallen pretty short for students in need of specialized educational services.
News of the federal investigation was welcome, if not surprising, to Adele Wheeldon, whose daughter is in third grade and has significant disabilities from a brain injury. Wheeldon’s family was completely excluded from online learning when it began last spring, she said, and she had to take unpaid leave from her job to care for her daughter full time.
Her daughter received virtually no special education benefits last spring, Wheeldon said, and has had minimal benefits and no personal benefits since then.
“[The district] admitted that not serving them at all from March to June wasn’t what should happen, ”said Wheeldon. “But it happened, and I think it happened to almost everyone.”
Meanwhile, Wheeldon said her daughter has declined in her skills and is only now regaining the skills she had when schools closed.
She said she and other parents had discussed the possibility of a class action lawsuit against the district.
State and federal officials have urged districts to prioritize disabled students for in-person tuition during the pandemic, as many have needs that cannot be met remotely.
But this week the district said fewer than 100 students are currently receiving personal services out of an estimated 7,560 students in special education.
Janis White, president of PTSA’s special education in Seattle, said she was pleased to see the Department of Education had an interest in the district’s reported failure to provide special education services to students.
“We have heard from so many families since the beginning of the pandemic who have not received services such as language and occupational therapy or specialized direct teaching in academic and social fields,” White said.
Problems with the district’s special education regulations long preceded Covid, particularly the exclusion of students with disabilities from general education classrooms.
“Covid only exacerbated these problems.”
“I hope this investigation really opens up some of the practices we were concerned about in the Seattle special education system and helps us move the ball forward in terms of improving services for children,” White said.
The Civil Rights Office told Seattle Schools that the investigation would begin within a week.
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