Cheryl Poe has spent more than a decade as an advocate for students with disabilities in Virginia. She said she immediately identified with a recent report from the federal Department of Education, which found systemic problems with how the Virginia Department of Education oversees special education.

But when she read the state’s response — a 10-page letter from Samantha Hollins, the assistant superintendent of special education and student services — she said she couldn’t even muster up disappointment.

“I wasn’t disappointed because I expected them to put out that false propaganda type of statement,” Poe said. “But she’s totally incorrect when she talks about the idea that there were only a few people who experienced this.”

The June 23 report outlined serious deficiencies in how VDOE responds to reported violations 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.

After receiving what the federal education officials described as an “unusually high number” of concerns about Virginia’s complaint resolution process, officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs found that the state agency consistently failed to supervise local school districts and adequately resolve complaints from parents and advocates.

The lengthy letter details deficiencies in multiple areas, including general supervision — VDOE’s onsite monitoring program only inspects between four to six of Virginia’s 132 local school districts every year, according to the report — and ensuring complaints are addressed within federally regulated time limits. VDOE has no mechanism for addressing reported issues outside its formal complaint process, according to the report, which parents say is a time-consuming and often expensive endeavor that can require attorneys or advocates familiar with special education law.

Neither Hollins nor Virginia Superintendent James Lane responded to an initial interview request from the Mercury to discuss the report soon after it was released. Hollins was again “not available” on Friday, according to VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle, who referred back to her June 19 response letter.

There, Hollins described multiple parts of the report as “categorically false,” writing that federal DOE staff had yet to share the “unusually high” number of communications that led to its investigation. “The previous information shared by VDOE points to a very limited and specific set of constituent calls that prompted the onsite monitoring and the findings in OSEP’s letter,” she added. 

Since the Mercury published its original story on the federal report and VDOE’s response, more than a dozen parents and advocates have shared concerns about Hollins’ letter. To many, one of the most grating aspects was the sense that the department was denying some of the first external findings to validate long-held complaints.

On July 2, two days after the Mercury published its story, VDOE issued a news release touting that for the “eighth consecutive year,” it had received the federal DOE’s highest rating for IDEA compliance (this year’s rating is based on data from the 2017-2018 school year). 

Hollins highlighted the same achievement in her response letter to the federal report. But for many parents and advocates, the release felt like a smack in the face. “If Virginia has a high rating, with what our parents and children go through on a day-to-day basis, I’d hate to see what a low rating is,” said Kim Lemburg, a special education advocate in the Lynchburg area. 

Poe, like many parents, also took issue with Hollins’ claim that VDOE has systems in place to address problems outside the state’s formal complaint process. Hollins wrote that “staff members regularly work to resolve parent concerns by providing guidance documentation, acting as intermediary between school division staff and parent and collecting data regarding the types of sufficient complaints that are resolved to monitor areas of perpetual noncompliance or of possible concern.”

One mother in Fairfax County shared an April 2019 email from Patricia Haymes, director of VDOE’s Office of Dispute Resolution within the Department of Special Education, in which Haymes wrote that VDOE “does not issue formal guidance on the application of special education regulations.

“The mechanisms available to address the issues are through state complaints, due process hearings or mediation,” Haymes wrote. In its report, OSEP, the federal office, warned VDOE 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.”

Poe, as another example, pointed to multiple communications she’s sent since early 2020 on behalf of Imani Hill, a former special education teacher in Chesapeake who reached out to VDOE with serious concerns about six African American students assigned to her classroom.

“They have not been getting any of their specialized instruction during the closure, and even before then, what Chesapeake Public Schools had done was completely and totally in violation of IDEA,” Poe said. “And all we get is, ‘Oh, you need to work it out with the district.’”

‘I don’t want to be a part of this’

Hill said she first reached out to VDOE at the end of January. Earlier that month, she was brought in as a special education teacher at Oscar Smith Middle School, a squat, red-brick complex in Chesapeake near the Elizabeth River. She said she was assigned to room 602 in the sixth grade hall, where she found six boys — all African American — sitting alone.

“I was told they were put in there because [the school] couldn’t find a place to put them — they’d been kicked out of class and no teacher wanted to deal with them,” Hill said. It took her about a week and a half to get copies of the boys’ individualized education programs, or IEPs — documents that outline a student’s disabilities and the specific services they’re required to receive.

Imani Hill, a former special education teacher for Chesapeake Public Schools, says she was fired for refusing to write falsified IEPs for six students. (Photo courtesy of Imani Hill)

Emails from Jan. 8 show that she emailed Hope Lucart, an instructional specialist for the school system, asking for guidance after learning that two of the students had been charged with assaulting teachers. After reviewing the documents, Hill said she found that most of the boys didn’t have behavior intervention plans — documents, often accompanying IEPs, which address support for “behavior problems that interfere with classroom instruction,” according to guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education. The documents are required, according to the VDOE, “for students who have been subject to disciplinary actions where the conduct was determined to be a manifestation of the student’s disability.”

“My question was, ‘Okay, if these children have such horrible behavior problems, why don’t we have an effective BIP in place?’” Hill said.

Then there were other concerns. One of the students was hearing impaired, with an IEP that called for twice-weekly hearing therapy. Those services weren’t being delivered, Hill added (she said the school district told her its therapist was on maternity leave). Some had testing that hadn’t been updated since they were six or seven. And all of them had IEPs that indicated they were receiving their education in a general classroom setting, even though they were currently being isolated, she said.

When she was brought in for a meeting with the parents, Hill said administrators pressured her to convince them to sign new IEPs. Instead, she recommended they hire an advocate. Things went downhill from there. When updated IEPs were due, Hill said Principal Penny Schultz and assistant principal Kari Smith asked her to write new plans that included her observations of the boys in a self-contained classroom within IEPs that suggested they were still being taught in a general setting. Hill refused, and sent an email to Smith outlining her concerns with what she was asked to do.

“Since then, they’ve made my life a living hell,” she added.

In February, Hill said she went on a deployment with the Virginia National Guard (Guard spokesman Cotton Puryear confirmed Friday she’s an active member). While she was away, Hill said she was locked out of the school’s online system. In a May email to Pam Taylor, a human resources administrator for Chesapeake Public Schools, Hill wrote that her union representative with the Virginia Education Association had been told by Schultz that Hill was no longer an employee with the school system.

In the same email chain, Schultz wrote that Hill had “not notified or reached out to an administrator regarding her leave or job responsibilities” prior to schools closing, on March 23, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“With the knowledge and understanding that Ms. Hill was going on a long term deployment and we were unable to secure a long term sub (there were additional factors also considered in this decision), we assigned new case managers to the students in her class,” Schultz wrote. On May 15, she sent Hill a non-renewal letter ending her contract with the school system.

Jeff Berntsen, a VEA union director who represented Hill in her meeting with the school system, said she was given the choice of resigning or getting fired. Hill chose to resign.

Angie Smith, a spokeswoman for Chesapeake Public Schools, did not respond to a request for comment with specific questions related to Hill’s dismissal. “Unfortunately, we are unable to provide comment on the basis that this is a personnel matter,” she wrote in a Friday email. “In addition, anything having to do with a student’s progress would be confidential under [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act].”

Hill has since sent a formal letter of complaint to the division’s director of human resources and said she’s reached out to a law firm that specializes in whistleblower termination suits. But she said she also began reaching out to VDOE much earlier based on her initial concerns over the students in her care. 

“As soon as I found out what was going on, I said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this,’” Hill said. She said the department referred her back to the local school system; Poe said VDOE has yet to issue a formal response. One of their primary concerns is how the boys are getting educated during the shutdown. “Parents reached out to me because their children were not being serviced at the start of the pandemic,” Hill wrote to Taylor and Schultz in May. “It is my duty as an educator to educate all children.”

Pyle declined to comment on whether VDOE officials had responded to the complaint. “The department does not comment on matters involving identifiable students,” he wrote in an email on Friday. When asked if VDOE could confirm that it was aware of the issue, Pyle responded, “All I can tell you is that when VDOE receives information about an issue involving services for students with disabilities, the department contacts the school division to assist in resolving the matter.”

A complaint process that’s ‘hell’

Hill’s story echoes a common complaint about Virginia’s special education system: that effectively resolving problems takes time and resources that are simply unavailable to many parents. In some cases, parents chose to relocate or remove their students from the state’s public schools altogether. 

Marian Ledford, a former Albemarle County resident, said she and her husband moved to Maryland after years of complaints against their local school system. Their daughter, Jane, had health issues for most of her childhood and had limited hearing due to frequent ear infections, Ledford said. But when Jane started kindergarten, her teachers decided she was mentally disabled and isolated her in a corner of the classroom with an aide and another severely disabled student who was wheelchair-bound and nonverbal. “They had her playing Candy Crush when all the other kids were being taught to read and do math,” Ledford said. 

She said Jane was assigned “pullouts” — specialized instruction time when she was forced to do activities well below her capabilities, such as placing balls in buckets. Jane started to hate going to school, Ledford said. The last straw came in second grade, when Jane’s case manager told Ledford she would never progress in school and the district planned to place her in a functional skills classroom.

“Within a week, I arranged for her to be home-schooled with a private tutor,” Ledford said. On the advice of their pediatrician, they moved to Montgomery County right before Jane started fourth grade. Jane was diagnosed with mild autism and an expressive language disorder due to her hearing problems, but is currently thriving in a setting where she can learn alongside what Ledford described as “neurotypical” peers.

“I don’t know what would have happened to her if she had to stay there,” she added. “If you’re low-income, you’re screwed. You’re stuck, and they will stick your kid in whatever classroom they see fit.”

Jane Ledford, now 15, spent kindergarten through second grade in Albemarle County Public Schools. (Photo courtesy of Marian Ledford)

In Ledford’s case, she said she never appealed to VDOE because she was never told it was an option by the school system. It’s a stark contrast to her experience in Maryland public schools, where she said administrators outline the appeals process to her before every IEP meeting.

In Virginia, multiple people described the process of appealing to VDOE, at best, as “unfriendly to parents.” At worst, it was “hell,” one parent said. Both Lemburg and Poe said it was typical for VDOE to grant extensions giving school systems additional time to respond to complaints without offering the same option to the parents. In some cases, parents said they weren’t notified that schools had been granted an extension, leaving them mystified when the deadline for a response came and went.

It recently happened to Sarah Kennedy, whose daughter, Corina, still attends school in Hampton at Spratley Gifted Center. Kennedy said she began filing state complaints when Corina was in sixth grade. The year before, Corina had been independently evaluated and found to have specific learning disabilities in reading, writing and math. The school agreed to an IEP, but Kennedy said Corina began failing subjects about a month after it was implemented .

“I naively thought it was the special ed teacher,” Kennedy said. But at the beginning of sixth grade, the district told her Corina didn’t qualify for a special reading program. 

That set off a series of complaints. After the first, Kennedy said the school sent in a reading specialist who ruled that Corina was eligible for the assistance. But in a second complaint, she said Hampton City Schools hadn’t started administering the program until October. She also had problems with the service itself, a city-specific program she said was geared toward students who couldn’t read at all. Kennedy said Corina, then 12, was assigned flashcards with letters of the alphabet on them, or asked to review words like “is” and “cat.”

Kellie Goral, a spokeswoman for Hampton City Schools, wrote in a Friday email that the district “strongly disagree[s] with various aspects of the information that you have been provided” but was “precluded by law from disclosing any educational information with respect to a particular student.” Kennedy said she’s still appealing. VDOE recently found that the school system could continue to use the reading program, but ruled that it owed compensatory services for the delay in implementation. Those services have never been offered, Kennedy said. In March, she filed a fourth appeal arguing that the reading program wasn’t designed to meet her daughter’s educational needs. 

In May, Kennedy received a letter from VDOE notifying her they had offered the school system an extension after it missed its initial 60-day deadline for a response. “Isn’t this B.S.?” she emailed Poe, who began advocating for Corina in fifth grade.

Multiple parents described feeling consistently that VDOE took the side of local school systems over students, despite Hollins’ claiming that the “equitable provision of special education services” is a “core priority” of the department. Callie Oettinger, a parent in Fairfax County, said she’s filed 30 complaints to the state over the implementation of her son’s IEP.

She said the problems started with mediation, one of the state’s recommended first steps in working through disputes between parents and school systems. Supposedly an impartial process, parents frequently complained that the state’s own mediation specialist actively participated in sessions, a violation of regulations requiring mediators to be impartial and independent, according to OSEP. 

Hollins wrote in her response letter that the state’s mediator, Art Stewart, only attended occasional sessions with new mediators as a “quality control measure.” 

“He is not there as an authority,” she wrote, “but as a colleague with the mediator, both of them trained as neutrals, one acting as the neutral and one silent.”

But a 2018 mediation agreement between Oettinger and Fairfax County Public Schools lists Stewart as the only mediator. Pyle responded Thursday that “the Virginia Department of Education acknowledges that on occasion, VDOE’s coordinator of mediation services has assisted with the mediation of a special education dispute to facilitate a discussion and outcome in the best interest of a student.”

Oettinger, though, described the mediated agreement as “just a mess.” One of her main complaints at the time was that her son was getting reading assistance through a program called Language Live, which one Fairfax County teacher wrote was “not really working well” and “incredibly slow” in an email obtained by Oettinger through a Freedom of Information Act request. She said she began reaching out to Stewart for help after Fairfax County didn’t offer a different program. 

“He comes to me and says, ‘You can take them to circuit court,’” said Oettinger, who’s since filed a systemic complaint alleging that Fairfax County’s online learning during the pandemic has failed children with disabilities. “Like, really? This is a legal document. And for me to get anything done with it, I have to file in circuit court.”