Ed Department Reconsidering Previously Settled Disability Complaints
The U.S. Department of Education has quietly renegotiated hundreds of disability-related civil rights agreements with schools.
In more than 200 cases, the agency has recently reworked agreements — some up to two years old — struck with school districts and universities to satisfy allegations related to accessibility of school websites and other online educational materials.
The agreements were the result of complaints brought by Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special education advocate who has been dubbed a “mass-filer” by the Education Department. She’s responsible for some 2,400 complaints to the agency’s Office for Civil Rights since 2016, about 1,000 of which have ended in resolutions.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
“They have removed the guts of these resolution agreements,” Lipsitt said.
While the original resolutions established timelines for schools to make their websites accessible, required an auditor or staff member to oversee the project and mandated training for staff on web accessibility policy, Lipsitt indicated that the modified resolutions she received do not.
The revised agreements also offer the schools an option to provide “equally effective alternative access” to web materials if they cannot make web content accessible to people with disabilities.
“I think it’s an insult to individuals that have disabilities and have a right to access information just like everyone else,” Lipsitt said.
The Education Department did not respond to questions about whether Lipsitt’s complaints are the only ones being renegotiated at this point.
However, according to an Education Department spokesperson who did not wish to be named, the Office for Civil Rights has a “longstanding practice of modifying resolution agreements under a variety of circumstances,” including when a law or policy changes that would no longer require the office to do something mentioned in an agreement.
In March, the office adopted a new set of guidelines that allowed it to dismiss reports if “a complaint is a continuation of a pattern of complaints previously filed with OCR by an individual or group against multiple recipients, or a complaint is filed for the first time … that places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.”
The Education Department has since dismissed hundreds of complaints filed by Lipsitt under the new policy.
Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, said he believes the new practice will have a “chilling effect” on people wanting to file complaints with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
“Why would you file a complaint, expect to have a resolution and then have the resolution be amended?” he said.
Hager suspects that this action is part of the office’s larger effort to reduce its “enforcement footprint.”
Officials are taking requests from school districts and universities to reconsider resolved agreements on a case-by-case basis, the Education Department spokesperson said, noting that the modified agreements still obligate schools to make their web content accessible.
However, Lipsitt said she believes this is untrue. She has received identical modified resolution agreements, even though some school districts had different accessibility problems.
The Education Department announced last month that it would be launching a new technical assistance initiative to assist schools in making websites and online programs more accessible, including a series of webinars on the issue for information technology professionals.
“OCR’s technical assistance will help us continue to forge important partnerships with schools for the benefit of students and parents with disabilities,” said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in announcing the webinars.
The Education Department spokesperson said the webinars are not intended to replace resolution agreements already reached with schools.
“Website accessibility was identified as an area where schools and districts might benefit from technical assistance to ensure that everyone, including individuals with disabilities, may access online programs,” the spokesperson said.