Complaints prompt federal investigation into special education in Indiana during pandemic

Student cubbies in a classroom Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School, an elementary school in Indianapolis, Indiana. —April, 2019— Photo by Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat
The federal investigation of Indiana’s special education services is one of several opened this week. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Federal investigators are examining whether Indiana has failed to provide appropriate special education services through remote learning during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened the investigation this week because of multiple complaints filed with the state that schools’ virtual learning plans did not include individualized services for students with disabilities. At least three other similar investigations were opened this week across the country.

Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner, who took office this week, said she’s seeking more information about the special education complaints that have been filed. In a statement, she added that she will “provide every available support to help our districts and schools meet the needs of Indiana’s special education students.”

Indiana special education advocates say they’re not surprised by the federal scrutiny after hearing from many families frustrated by the lack of services and poor communication. Families have filed 72 special education complaints to the state since July, on top of untold numbers of other cases that never rise to formal complaints.

“This has been such a horrible year,” said Kim Dodson, who leads The Arc of Indiana, an advocacy organization. “It is hard for everybody involved, but the most important thing is we still need to make sure our students are getting the education that they deserve and need.”

Schools have been expected to continue meeting special education requirements despite the turbulent effects of the pandemic. State and federal officials waived some rules, such as the length of the school year or testing requirements, but still called on schools to hold case conferences, give students accommodations, and provide services such as therapies or interventions — even if students were learning remotely.

Federal officials referenced a case in which a family said Hamilton Southeastern Schools failed to provide therapies to their severely disabled son when schools switched to virtual learning last spring. Instead, his school gave him a “one size fits all” virtual program, according to the family’s request for a due process hearing: “It provides him with no educational benefit whatsoever.”

The family’s attorney, Tom Blessing, said he hopes the federal investigation will make schools “wake up and realize that they actually have to comply with [special education law] even during a pandemic.” 

The family has since resolved the issue with the district. Hamilton Southeastern spokeswoman Emily Pace Abbotts wrote in an email that the district has developed virtual instruction plans with families “in order to better meet the needs of each student,” considered compensatory services when virtual services weren’t possible, and sometimes offered in-person services. 

A look at dozens of special education complaints investigated by the state since last March illustrate the breadth of the challenges — and the negative impact on students who don’t get the support they need.

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Complaints described cases where in-person accommodations didn’t translate to virtual learning: One student should have had a virtual math quiz read aloud to them, and another didn’t get breaks in their online schedule.

One student withdrew from their school after not receiving services during remote learning. The school didn’t follow the Individualized Education Program calling for 30 minutes of speech therapy each week, an investigation found, and it didn’t provide a special device for the student to use at home to help with reading comprehension.

In one complaint, state officials found a school took too long to provide student records requested by a parent — but didn’t call for corrective action in part “based on the circumstances of the pandemic.”

Jacob Allen, CEO of Indianapolis charter school PilotED, said the pandemic added significant challenges to the already complicated special education processes. His school didn’t respond quickly enough to evaluating a new student for special education services at the beginning of the year, according to the state’s investigation of a complaint.

With instruction completely upended, schools had to adapt to different ways of providing special education services when families were also feeling overwhelmed. Allen acknowledged that his school struggled at first to meet the needs.

The laws “are written for an in-person environment,” Allen said. “When you have students showing up every single day, Monday through Friday, you also have an everyday chance to engage with a parent or guardian who’s picking that student up.”

Rather than investigating individual districts, the federal investigation is scrutinizing the Indiana Department of Education. It’s not clear what effect that could have on special education services, where local districts are largely responsible and the state plays an enforcement role. The investigation could look into how the state provided information to schools on following special education law or how the state responded to families’ complaints.

It’s also not clear how timely the investigation could be. Dodson, the special education advocate, worries that a lengthy inquiry could mean potential problems won’t get fixed before learning environments return to being largely in person.

“Yes, it’s a big issue. Yes, it needs to be addressed,” she said. “We’ve been doing this long enough now that this should not be a consistent fight that families have to make.”

The department has also opened up investigations into Los Angeles Unified, Seattle Public Schools, and Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, according to letters obtained by Chalkbeat. The four investigations — each announced in letters dated Tuesday of this week — all cite “disturbing reports involving the District’s provision of educational services to children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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“Los Angeles Unified appreciates the concerns of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and we will cooperate in its investigation,” a spokesperson for Los Angeles Unified said in a statement. “Until it is safe and appropriate to resume in-person services, we’ll continue to do our best to help those most in need with individual and small-group support in an online setting.”

A spokesperson for Fairfax County schools said the district had just received notice yesterday of the investigation and could not offer an immediate response. A spokesperson said Seattle Public Schools planned to fully cooperate with the investigation, according to the Seattle Times.

Matt Barnum and Aaricka Washington contributed to this story.

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