Tears of joy came to the eyes of local Fairfax County special education advocates Callie Oettinger and Debra Tisler, as they read a much-anticipated decision by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on Nov. 30.
For years, they have been advocating — to mostly deaf ears from officials and outside attorneys at Fairfax County Public Schools and the entire state of Virginia — on behalf of students denied educational services under federal legislation called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that public schools in the U.S. provide all students “free and appropriate education” or “FAPE.”
Now, the U.S. Department of Education has ruled that the parents were always right.
“This is a victory for every parent,” said Oettinger. “In 2020, during the pandemic, we knew that the actions that FCPS was taking were in noncompliance with federal laws protecting students with disabilities. We are now vindicated, and every parent should contact FCPS to make sure that every child receives compensatory education and other services that meet their needs.”
Advocates say the key words here are to ask for compensatory education. For example, so many parents pay out of pocket and take on second jobs to pay for tutors and other services to meet educational needs that FCPS fails to provide. So many parents can’t afford these extra services, and their children are left behind.
“It’s criminal that so many children went without services and appropriate education,” said Tisler, at her dining table, as she learned the news. “The investigation must not stop with Fairfax County. Governor Glenn Youngkin should now reconsider the leadership that he inherited that allowed such an atrocity to occur under their watch. The full weight of his office must be used to hold accountable those responsible for this failure.”
The Department of Education announcement noted that the Office of Civil Rights “Reaches Resolution Agreement with Virginia’s Largest School Division, Fairfax County Public Schools, to Meet the Needs of Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The resolution agreement with Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia requires school divisions to “take steps necessary to ensure that students with disabilities receive educational services, including compensatory services, during and resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” The federal Office of Civil Rights investigated the school district’s “provision during the pandemic of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, as required by Federal civil rights law.”
The Office of Civil Right’s investigation “found that the School Division inappropriately reduced and limited services provided to students with disabilities, based on considerations other than the students’ individual educational needs, and failed to adequately remedy these denials of FAPE.” OCR said it also “identified concerns with staffing shortages and other administrative obstacles that may have limited the School Division’s provision of FAPE, as well as its ability to sufficiently track its FAPE services.”
The Education Department said the school district “agreed to resolve the compliance review by creating and implementing a comprehensive plan to address the compensatory education needs of students with disabilities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Around the county and the state, parents swapped stories of the indignities, humiliation and marginalization parents face as they advocate for their kids. In fact, at her home, Tisler wiped away tears, as she recalled the way that Fairfax County Public Schools officials have largely dismissed her quest for services for students with disabilities.
At home, her fellow advocate, Oettinger, assembled a quick tip sheet for parents.
Parents of students with Individualized Education Plans, called IEPs, and plans under Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act should contact the special education heads at their schools to schedule a meeting. In advance of the meeting, parents should request data collected before COVID, during COVID, and up until the meeting, to determine how their student was impacted by online learning. In addition, parents should request access, pursuant to FCPS’s resolution agreement with the Office of Civil Rights’, “to the information recorded by the Division regarding the amount of special education, related aids or services provided during the Pandemic Period, including the option to review IEP or Section 504 service logs.”
The Office of Civil Rights’ resolution agreement with FCPS has a specific timeline during which FCPS is required to take actions to address its noncompliance. Parents should familiarize themselves with the timeline and associated action items, say education experts.
And the parents said, they remain committed to keeping the pressure on state and local officials until wrongs are corrected, so that no child faces civil rights abuses in Virginia.
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a senior fellow in the practice of journalism at Independent Women’s Network. Please contact her with any tips at [email protected] or @AsraNomani on Twitter.