The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau is investigating Seattle public schools after hearing “disturbing reports” about how the district handled special education during the pandemic.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Superintendent Denise Juneau, Education Department officials cite concerns that some students with disabilities were not given special classes – and some teachers were not allowed to give them.
“According to a local news report last spring, the district urged its special education teachers not to give specially designed instructions and forbade them to conform[ing] Classes for Every Child’s Needs, ”wrote Kimberly M. Richey, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. “OCR is concerned that the district has failed to provide ‘free adequate public education’ to every qualified student with a disability, as mandated by federal law, and has denied students with disabilities equal access to education.”
Richey’s letter said the department would be in touch with the district within a week to request access to data and interviews with school staff.
The initiation of an investigation is not an indication that the district is to blame, district officials said and the OCR letter said. “We have followed OSPI’s guidelines since the beginning of the pandemic and will continue to do so. Since March, the district has adjusted every time state policies have changed, ”said Tim Robinson, a district spokesman, in an email. “Seattle Public Schools are aware of the investigation and will be working fully with the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.”
Officials from the State Department of Education said they are aware of the investigation. “We are in contact with the Seattle Public Schools and OSPI’s internal civil rights and special education teams to determine if and how OSPI can be effectively incorporated into the future,” said Katy Payne, spokeswoman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The letter made no reference to a specific complaint against the district, suggesting that the department may have started the investigation on its own. This is a rarer type of investigation, especially under the Trump administration. OCR has opened eight additional investigations in the district since 2014, all of which are responding to complaints.
When school resumed in the fall, many students with disabilities had not had significant interactions with an educator in months. Many families hoped that a new school year would come with a revised approach to special education services and possibly compensatory training for the time missed during spring school closings.
The district was also slow to provide services to students who needed instruction or personal assistance. Until the end of October this year, the district had only looked after one special school student personally, while its neighbors looked after hundreds.
These parents said they had floor to learn that their children were not getting makeup time. Other children sat on waiting lists for months to be screened for services that were important to keep them busy and on track.
Shannon McMinimee, a former SPS attorney who now represents disabled students, said in an email that she was “not surprised”.
“As far as we know, the only students who received face-to-face tuition from March to late 2020 were our clients and they received third-party services,” she wrote. “It shouldn’t be necessary to have an attorney to get the specially designed instructions and related services your child is entitled to.”
She added that she felt bad about district employees who were “denied the ability” to serve their students.
Like many neighborhoods across the country, the district has a tumultuous history with special needs education and decades of problems. In 2014, the state withheld 28% of the district’s federal funds, about $ 3 million, until they could prove it complied with federal law.
Seattle isn’t the only district struggling to provide services.
At least three families of children with disabilities in King, Pierce and Thurston counties have filed lawsuits over concerns that having more flexibility in defining “lessons” will disproportionately harm children who need more support this year, not less.
“It is absolutely right that teachers in Seattle were instructed last spring not to give specially designed instructions,” said Kathy George, an attorney who represents the three families in suit. “It is also true that the Seattle schools have nowhere near made up for the damage this has caused to students with disabilities. I hope the federal agency does a thorough investigation. “
Other families say they have complained directly to the school administrators. In the fall, the Seattle Times followed families in the Seattle, Bellevue, and Lake Washington districts who had spent months trying to secure statutory services for their children.