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Seattle schools' special education services during COVID-19 subject of US Department of Education investigation

Hannah Furfaro and Dahlia Bazzaz, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights 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 went without specialized instruction — and some teachers weren’t allowed to provide it.

“According to one local news report last spring, the District told its special education teachers ‘not to deliver specially-designed instruction,’ and disallowed them from ‘adapt(ing) lessons to each child’s needs,’” wrote Kimberly M. Richey, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights. “OCR is concerned that the District has failed to provide a ‘free appropriate public education’ to each qualified student with a disability as required by federal law and denied students with disabilities equal access to education.”

Richey’s letter says the department will contact the district within one week to begin requesting access to data and interviews with school employees.

Initiating an investigation is not an indication that the district is at fault, district officials and the OCR letter said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic we have followed and will continue to follow the guidance of OSPI. Since March, every time state guidance has changed, the district has adjusted,” Tim Robinson, a district spokesperson, wrote in an email. “Seattle Public Schools is aware of the investigation and will fully cooperate with the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.”

Officials with the state’s education department said they are aware of the investigation. “We are in contact with Seattle Public Schools and OSPI’s internal civil rights and special education teams to determine whether, and how, OSPI can effectively be involved moving forward,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

 

The letter did not make reference to a specific complaint lodged against the district, which suggests the department may have initiated the investigation of its own accord. That is a rarer type of investigation, especially under the Trump administration. OCR has launched eight other investigations into the district since 2014, all of them in response to complaints.

When school resumed in the fall, many students with disabilities hadn’t had meaningful interactions with an educator in months. Many families said they hoped a new school year would come with an overhauled approach to special education services, and possibly compensatory education for time missed during school closures in the spring.

The district was also slow to provide services to students who needed instruction or support in-person. By the end of October this year, the district was serving only one special education student in person, while its neighbors served hundreds.

Those parents said they were floored to learn their children wouldn’t receive makeup time. Other children sat for months on waitlists to get evaluated for services that are critical to keeping them engaged and on track.

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