The U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Office is investigating the Indiana Department of Education in a letter to Secretary of Education Katie Jenner alleging that the state denied equal access to education to students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to federal law, schools must provide “free adequate public education” to every qualified student with a disability.
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In its letter, OCR said it was concerned that Indiana had failed to do so and was “particularly concerned” about reports that parents of disabled students in Indiana schools had filed several complaints with IDOE alleging that students were being localized School districts have been forced to “one” size fits all distance learning programs rather than individual programs tailored to the requirements set out in their individual education plans or 504 plans. Qualified students with disabilities receive guaranteed services set out in their IEP or 504 plan to meet their special needs and ensure they have equal access to free public education.
IDOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Some of these services are difficult to replicate virtually or through remote delivery models. And when schools across the country unexpectedly closed in March, many special needs students struggled to access their distance education and get the services they needed.
In August, the family of Dyllan Dague, a New Britton Elementary School student, alleged in a complaint to IDOE that Hamilton Southeastern Schools had not offered him special education and had “not even tried in good faith” closed schools in March. Dyllan is non-verbal, eats through a tube and has quadriplegia. When HSE decided to start the new school year virtually, it meant that the district was “not only denying it free adequate public education, but also harming it in meaningful and tangible ways: developmentally, intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically” Complaint.
At the time, HSE said it could not comment on individual student matters, but the district was providing personal services to students with significant disabilities, which should be determined at a meeting between parents and school staff. The district eventually started teaching in person for part of the first semester but has now returned to a fully virtual schedule.
At the time the Dague filed the Dague’s complaint with IDOE, a department spokesman said the U.S. Department of Education was giving little leeway to special education schools during the pandemic and that the federal department was telling schools that they need to continue working with students in special education, despite a challenge during the pandemic is when school buildings were closed.
While IndyStar’s article on Dyllan’s case was linked in the OCR letter, it is unclear how many other complaints the office received or is investigating. A USDOE spokesman was unable to answer questions about complaints OCR received. The investigation will determine if the state has failed to meet its obligations and excluded, denied services or otherwise discriminated against qualified persons with disabilities.
IDOE isn’t the only facility OCR is investigating for its handling of special education during the pandemic. Several other school districts across the country have launched similar investigations, including the Seattle Public Schools, according to the Seattle Times. It’s unclear whether Indiana is the only state education agency under investigation. The USDOE spokesman could not tell if other state departments were being investigated, but said Indiana was “not alone”.
This story will be updated.
Call IndyStar Education Reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.
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