Federal report faults Virginia Department of Education over special education oversight

By: - June 29, 2020 12:05 am

The Virginia Department of Education is located in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

A new federal report finds systemic failures in how the Virginia Department of Education monitors and responds to special education complaints against local school districts.

VDOE is contesting several findings in the June 23 letter, sent to Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane by the U.S. Department of Education after a two-day site visit in late May 2019. But other experts framed it as a victory for the families and advocates of students with disabilities, who have spent years raising concerns over the state’s oversight process.

“None of this report is a surprise,” said Rachael Deane, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program. “In fact, I find it to be very vindicating of the voices of many parents and special education advocates over a number of years.”

The report centers on Virginia’s enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — better known as IDEA — a 1975 federal law that ensures a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities and guarantees special education services. The second part of the law tasks VDOE with supervising educational programs in the state and ensuring that local school divisions are meeting IDEA requirements.

“As the state educational agency, the buck really stops at VDOE,” Deane said. But the federal report, authored by DOE’s Office of Special Education Programs, found that the state agency consistently failed to supervise local school districts and establish adequate processes for addressing complaints.

DOE conducted site visits in Virginia after OSEP fielded an “unusually high number of customer service communications from parents, advocates, and other stakeholders” relating to the state’s process of resolving complaints against local school districts, according to the report. 

A May 19, 2019, email from Matthew Schneer, OSEP’s team leader in Virginia, noted that the agency had received “many letters, emails and phone calls from parents, advocates and educators expressing concerns about special education in Virginia.”

“OSEP has periodically discussed these concerns with staff in the Virginia Department of Education,” Schneer wrote to Kandise Lucas, a special education advocate who’s spent years petitioning for disabled students — a role that recently landed her at the center of drawn-out legal battles. But Schneer added that the “volume, nature, and scope” of the complaints warranted a follow-up investigation by the federal agency.

Lucas also described the findings as a “vindication” for families and advocates who have long argued that state officials don’t do enough to protect the rights of students with disabilities and investigate complaints of deficiencies. OSEP noted several serious issues with the state’s oversight process, including a “very limited” onsite monitoring program that only inspects between 3 to 4.5 percent of local school districts every year — roughly four to six of Virginia’s 132 divisions.

The limited inspections are compounded by the fact that VDOE doesn’t have a system in place for addressing concerns outside a formal complaint process, which OSEP described as insufficient for fulfilling the department’s federally mandated role as an oversight agency for local school systems. Deane said she was troubled by several anecdotes included in the report, which, to her, underscored the department’s lack of supervision as “almost an open secret” that parents have complained about for years.

In one case, OSEP reported receiving a copy of a complaint alleging “systemic noncompliance” by a local school system in following federal special education requirements. The alleged failures, filed on behalf of a group of students, included a lack of “timely evaluations, insufficient access to the general education curriculum and falsified documentation of provision of services required by the individualized education program” — a written document that outlines a student’s learning goals and accommodations for disabilities.

According to the agency, VDOE dismissed the complaint because the allegations were more than a year old. But parents said they had made “numerous attempts” to contact the state and request that the issues be addressed outside the formal complaint process. In another case, OSEP and VDOE leaders were copied on emails between a parent and local high school alleging that staff were not providing services required by the student’s individualized education program — an individualized plan that lays out learning goals and outlines the services each student should receive.

“The parent made numerous requests for the state to intervene,” according to the report, but was repeatedly referred back to the local school district. Lucas said that’s a typical experience for many of the parents she’s worked with.

“Our position is that the VDOE has consistently turned its back on all the violations that are going on at the local level,” she said.

“They’ll do two things,” she added. “They either ignore it — send them back to the [school district] — or they tell them to file a state complaint and they dismiss the complaint.”

OSEP underscored those deficiencies in the report, writing that “completely ignoring credible allegations of noncompliance” outside the formal complaint process “is not a reasonable method of exercising the State’s general supervisory responsibilities.”

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for VDOE, described the timing of the letter as “disappointing” in a Friday email, writing that VDOE identified “factual inaccuracies and findings in the OSEP draft that did not reflect the comprehensive nature of VDOE’s work to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.”

A 10-page letter from Samantha Hollins, the state’s assistant superintendent of special education and student services, disputed that VDOE didn’t have processes in place outside “formal dispute resolution procedures” to address complaints of noncompliance. Verbal complaints “are addressed via technical assistance phone calls to school divisions,” she wrote, and staff members “regularly work to resolve parent concerns” by providing “guidance documentation” and acting as intermediaries between school employees and parents.

VDOE also contested other findings in the report, including that the state’s own mediation coordinator regularly sits in on sessions between parents and staff as part of the formal arbitration process. The presence of a state employee is “inconsistent” with federal requirements that a mediator should be impartial and independent, according to OSEP. But VDOE insisted that the state’s coordinator only attended sessions as a silent “quality control measure” to observe new mediators.

The state also contested OSEP’s findings that VDOE has no procedures in place for ensuring that local school systems meet federally mandated timelines for scheduling resolution meetings after receiving due process complaints, the most formal mechanism for resolving alleged deficiencies, Deane said. According to federal law, the hearings — in most cases— must be scheduled 15 days after complaints are received. If the issue isn’t resolved through another process, such as mediation, school districts are required to organize formal hearings within 30 days that allow both sides to call witnesses and submit documentation.

While Hollins wrote that the state has guidance in place to manage those timelines, OSEP reported that VDOE “acknowledged it has no mechanism” to monitor whether meetings and hearings are scheduled by the required deadline. The agency reviewed 26 hearing decisions available on the state’s website, and “none…included a factual description” of whether the timeline was met, according to the report.  

Some parents say the lack of enforcement at the state level leads to real consequences for students. Lucas served as an advocate for Michelle Williams, whose 23-year-old son, Richard, attended school in Chesterfield County for more than a decade. Richard, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, according to a formal due process complaint filed by Williams against the school system, was recently assessed and found to be reading at a pre-kindergarten level. Both Lucas and Williams say they tried to raise concerns with VDOE for years, shortly after Richard first entered high school.

Lucas said VDOE repeatedly referred the issue back to the local school system. Williams is now caught up in a lawsuit filed by the Chesterfield School Board after she submitted additional process complaints against the district. Lucas said the case was another indicator of the unwillingness by some local school districts to meet special education requirements.

“For the federal government to say word-for-word what we’ve been saying at the grassroots level validates our struggle,” she said. “What we’re going to do with this now is demand that the governor clean house. The culture of the VDOE, as it stands, they have no skill and they have no will to provide monitoring or enforcement.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.