LA agrees to do more after failing special education. Could other districts be next?

Hours after federal officials released findings that the nation’s second-largest school district failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the document has lit up advocates’ email lists who have been sounding the alarm about these concerns since schools first closed in March 2020.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that the Los Angeles Unified School District failed to: provide the services required by students’ individualized education programs during remote learning, to follow adequate special education services and to provide adequate compensatory services, such as physical therapy or reading interventions, to fill these gaps.

In an April 27 resolution agreementthe district agreed on a plan to address these issues and further assess the needs of students with disabilities in the future.

The findings echoed what some parents across the country have been saying since the early days of the national crisis: left without the supports, accommodations and services promised to their students under national special education and rights laws. people with disabilities, they were forced to go there for the most part. alone, fearful of losing academic and developmental progress for their children accordingly.

“If I want to hope, I hope there are fewer of these deals that come out because the districts do the right thing in the beginning,” said Wendy Tucker, senior director of policy at the Center for Learner Equity, a national advocacy organization for students with disabilities in districts and charter schools.

“If I’m being realistic, I would expect us to see more,” she added. “I think the Ministry of Education is not playing. The Civil Rights Office takes this very seriously.

Advocates hope to use the Los Angeles Accord — the result of one of hundreds of federal special education investigations during the pandemic — as an example and affirmation to parents elsewhere that their children’s rights matter, she said.

Complicated law responds to realities of unprecedented crisis

The provision of special education services has been a sensitive issue for schools since the start of remote learning in 2020, district leaders said. It was difficult to quickly adjust students’ personalized learning plans to meet the logistics of a new reality, in which staff members like occupational therapists could not interact with students in person, and to make accommodations for things like reading processing issues in a virtual classroom environment.

In response to these challenges, some groups like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, pressed then-US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive certain requirements. of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the National Primary Special Education Act.

But DeVos and his successor, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, have instead repeatedly stressed that schools must meet the requirements of IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide all students a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE, regardless of their disability status. The laws include a range of specific requirements to equitably identify, support and educate children with disabilities.

In September 2021 guidance, for example, the Department of Education emphasized that schools should assess students’ IEPs individually. to determine what specific compensatory services might be needed to fill the gaps of the previous year and a half. These services could include additional therapies or interventions or more time to receive certain supports.

It is likely that other districts will soon enter into agreements similar to LAUSD’s. The Department of Education has opened more than 1,400 investigations into the provision of free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, to students with disabilities since March 2020, the month when most schools abruptly switched to learning at distance, an agency spokesperson said.

Investigate special education in a major school system

Compensatory education was one of the issues federal officials flagged in Los Angeles in an investigation they launched Jan. 12, 2021, the Civil Rights Office said in the resolution agreement Thursday.

“Los Angeles Unified has been and will continue to be committed to ensuring that individualized decisions are made for students with disabilities through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 Plan team meetings,” a LAUSD spokesperson said in a statement after the deal was released.

Among the findings of federal investigators:

  • The district “did not require that the amount of services provided actually match minute-by-minute IEPs during remote learning” and did not have a system to assess whether remote services met IEP requirements.
  • Special education service providers have been asked to provide services “where possible” to students learning remotely.
  • Providers documented communications, including emails and phone calls, such as time spent providing services.
  • The district has advised educators not to use the term “compensatory education” in IEP meetings, saying in a training webinar that “compensatory education is not intended for situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.” .
  • Los Angeles schools have not adopted an “adequate plan to address instances in which students with disabilities did not receive FAPE during remote learning.”

In the resolution, the district agreed to create a plan to assess and provide compensatory services; appoint a designated person to oversee the implementation of this plan; hold meetings about the IEP and the 504 plan to assess whether student needs have been met; and documenting and reporting progress and related data to federal officials.

Nothing about the agreement is particularly surprising, advocacy groups said, because its components mirror what the Department of Education has repeatedly stressed to schools, districts and state education agencies. throughout the pandemic.

“We understand that the districts had a very difficult few years and it was logistically incredibly difficult to deliver services, but we are now at a point where we can try to do things to lessen the impact of the pandemic,” said Lindsay Kubatzky. , director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

A signal to other school districts?

Kubatzky applauded Los Angeles schools for passing the resolution and the federal Department of Education for sending a signal that it takes its “watchdog role” seriously in taking such a large school district to task.

“What I hope is that the districts will take this as a sign that they should be proactive and address some of the instructional loss that we have seen” without the need for federal intervention, said he declared.

Advocates also hope districts will respect the role of parents in seeking services and advocating for their children’s needs.

Tucker, of the Center for Learning Equity, said the success of the plans in Los Angeles and other districts will depend on whether all parents and guardians, including those with limited income and those for whom l English is a second language are also included.

Parents first understood that the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic were a big challenge for schools, Tucker said. But, as weeks of hiatus turned into years in some cases, some saw their school system as an excuse or a “kick in the road”.

And, when some students with disabilities returned to in-person learning, they were greeted not with targeted plans to fix things, but with general district learning loss efforts that did not address their specific needs. , Tucker said.

She hopes the Los Angeles Accord will be an advocacy tool and a signal to other school systems to address ongoing concerns about learning interruptions for students with disabilities.

“Families of students with disabilities often feel like they’re not a priority,” Tucker said. “That was especially true at that time.”

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