Feds tell states special ed service requirements must be met for students

Agencies say evaluations to determine the eligibility of children suspected of having a disability are being delayed

By: - November 1, 2022 11:00 pm

(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Federal agencies warned officials across the country, including in Virginia, that some states aren’t providing special education services in a complete or timely fashion, according to an Oct. 5 letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. 

The agencies also notified state officials that many educational placement decisions for children with disabilities are not in line with federal regulations, and evaluations to determine the eligibility of children suspected of having a disability are being delayed.

Valerie Williams, director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the DOE, and Katie Hamm, acting director for the Office of Head Start at HHS, signed the nine-page letter reminding officials of the importance of supporting children and their families. The letter also included information about resources for implementing early childhood programs for all children.

“As we start this new school year, OSEP and OHS want to emphasize the importance of providing children with disabilities and their families the services and supports that they need to thrive,” the directors wrote.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman with the Virginia Department of Education, said the agency received a copy of the letter but did not comment about whether the department is complying with federal laws and if there is any connection to teacher vacancies.

In July, for the 11th consecutive year, Virginia earned the U.S. Department of Education’s highest rating for improving outcomes for students with disabilities and compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, students with disabilities must receive educational services tailored to their personal needs.

But in September, a class-action lawsuit alleged the Virginia Department of Education and Fairfax County School Board have been violating the rights of disabled students under IDEA for years.

Parents file class-action suit against Virginia Department of Education, Fairfax School Board over disability hearings

Vivian and Trevor Chaplick, the parents of an anonymous Fairfax County student, argued in their suit that VDOE and the Fairfax school board “have actively cultivated an unfair and biased” hearing system to oversee challenges to local decisions about disabled students. 

The parents claimed that state hearing officers, who are responsible for holding hearings to resolve disagreements over special education services, have ruled disproportionately against parents for two decades. 

Between 2010 and 2021, Virginia parents “received a favorable hearing” in only 13 of 847 cases, the lawsuit says.

Michael Adamson, an associate at Susman Godfrey L.L.P. and a lawyer for the Chaplick family, said in a statement to the Mercury that the family is encouraged to see both federal agencies take notice of issues affecting students with disabilities and their families. 

He said the family also hopes the agencies will take “prompt action to stop the systematic unfair treatment of Virginia families in the context of IDEA due process hearings, in which biased hearing officers almost never rule in favor of parents and students.”

Special education has been among the hardest-hit areas for teacher vacancies in recent years, with 617 unfilled positions in Virginia during the 2021-22 school year. Vacancy data for the 2022-23 school year are not yet available. 

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration earlier this fall launched an initiative to fill teacher vacancies through strategies including hiring retired educators and targeting recruitment and retention efforts toward communities most in need. Teacher advocates have pointed to teacher pay and highly politicized working environments as some reasons for shortages.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.