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 this week to Superintendent Denise Juneau, 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 (Office of Civil Rights) 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.”

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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 (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction). 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 OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne.

The letter did not refer 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. The Office for Civil Rights 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.

Shannon McMinimee, a former SPS attorney who now represents students with disabilities, said in an email that she was “not surprised.”

“As far as we are aware, the only students who received in-person instruction from March until late 2020 were our clients, and they were getting services from third party contractors,” she wrote. “It shouldn’t take having an attorney to get the specially designed instruction and related services your child is entitled to.”

She added that she felt bad for staff at the district who were “denied the ability” to serve their students.

Like many urban districts around the country, the district has a turbulent history with special education, with problems spanning decades. In 2014, the state withheld 28% of the district’s federal funding, about $3 million, until it could show it was complying with federal law.

Seattle isn’t the only district that’s struggled to provide services.

At least three families of children with disabilities, from King, Pierce and Thurston counties, have filed a lawsuit over concerns that more flexibility in how the state defines “instructional hours” disproportionately harmed children who need more support this year, not less.

“It is absolutely true that Seattle teachers were told in the spring not to provide specially designed instruction,” said Kathy George, an attorney representing the three families in the suit. “It is also true that Seattle schools have not come close to making up for the damage this caused to students with disabilities. I hope the federal agency does a thorough investigation.”

Other families say they’ve made complaints directly to school administrators. In the fall, The Seattle Times followed families in Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Washington districts that had tried and failed for months to secure legally required services for their children.

© 2021 The Seattle Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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