Seattle schools under investigation for 'disturbing reports' of handling special education during pandemic

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Seattle Public Schools after "disturbing reports" about how the district handled special education during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent to Superintendent Denise Juneau this week, department officials cite concerns that some students went without specialized instruction — and some teachers weren’t allowed to provide it, The Seattle Times reported.

"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."

Initiating an investigation is not an indication that the district is at fault, district officials and the 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."

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

Like many urban districts throughout 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.

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