Virtual Public Charter School Required to Comply with Section 504

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced an agreement with the Virtual Community School of Ohio, an internet based based, public charter school, ensuring compliance with Section 504 and Title II of the ADA. In the press release announcing the agreement, the Department of Education states:

“This first-of-its-kind resolution promises  equal access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities at the school.” And, the press release goes on to say:

“Students with disabilities who attend online public charter schools are entitled to all the protections of the federal civil rights laws that their peers receive at traditional public schools, including the right to receive a free appropriate education.  Online schools also must take steps to ensure that the websites and online classrooms they use to promote their services and to educate students are accessible to individuals with disabilities.”

The agreement requires the virtual school to:

  • Develop Section 504  policies and procedures so that students with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated, , and provided services to ensure they receive a FAPE;
  • Notify parents, guardians, and students of the revised Section 504 policies and procedures;
  • Evaluate or reevaluate students with disabilities enrolled in the last two years to determine whether they need compensatory special education and/or related aids or services and, based on this evaluation, promptly provide compensatory services;
  • Publish contact information for the school’s Section 504/Title II coordinator and ensure that the coordinator is appropriately trained;
  • Develop and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of disability discrimination complaints;
  • Provide training to staff involved in the evaluation and placement of students with disabilities;
  • Develop policies and procedures to ensure that the school’s online technologies are accessible, including the adoption of technical standards to ensure accessibility;
  • Revise its website and on-line learning environment so that they are accessible to individuals with disabilities, including students with visual, hearing, or print disabilities and those who otherwise require use of assistive technology to access the school’s program;
  • Monitor the accessibility of the school online technologies; and
  • Provide annual training for staff responsible for online technologies about the school’s

accessibility policies and procedures and their roles and responsibilities in ensuring online content is accessible.

The Office for Civil Rights will monitor the schools implementation of the agreement.

MDR Teams Must Look beyond the Student’s Special Education Eligibility “Label” when Making a Manifestation Determination

One benefit of having a blog is having a forum to express my pet peeves. A major pet peeve of mine is those school districts and their attorneys who refuse to consider information related to conditions and disabilities a student may have other than the student’s special education disability label when conducting a manifestation determination review (MDR).

The manifestation determination review process was first put in place by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in 1995, when it issued its Memorandum 95-16, 22 IDELR 531 (April 26, 1995). The Office of Special Education Programs acknowledged that behavior, even inappropriate behavior that is caused by a disability, should be responded to differently than when the behavior is not related to the disability. Of course the IDEA was amended in 1997 to codify the MDR process.

If the purpose of conducting a manifestation determination is to not discriminate against students with disabilities by punishing them through expulsions and other long-term disciplinary sanctions for behavior they can’t help due to having a disability, then we must consider information related to conditions other than the special education “label”. If we only consider the student’s special education label in the MDR process and ignore other conditions that contribute to the student’s behavior, then we risk punishing the student for behavior related to a disability. That violates not only the IDEA, but 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act as well.

Here is a decision that makes this point. In Seattle School District, 60 IDELR 266 (SEA WA 2012), the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for the Washington State Education Agency required a school district to re-do an MDR because it had not considered information regarding other disabilities than the student’s special education disability “label”.  The student had been identified for special education eligibility as having ADHD. When his MDR took place he had also been diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorder and with anxiety disorder. The MDR team did not consider information about these two other conditions.

The ALJ ruled that the MDR team must consider all relevant information in the student’s file, including the IEP, teacher observation, and any relevant information provided by the parents. The ALJ cited several SEA decisions and a OCR decision in stating that: “School districts may violate the IDEA when their manifestation determinations are based only upon the disability on which the student’s special education eligibility is based.” See Renton Sch. Dist., 111 LRP 3970 (SEA WA 2011); Snohomish Sch. Dist., 103 LRP 38270 (SEA WA 2003); Murrieta Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 53 IDELR 108 (SEA CA 2009); and Quincy (Wa) Sch. Dist., 52 IDELR 170 (OCR 2009).

So, when conducting a manifestation determination review the team should consider all relevant information including information regarding disabilities the student may have other than the disability on which the student’s special education eligibility is based.

Compliance with the IDEA does not always equal compliance with the ADA: The ADA may require additional services for students with hearing impairments

     In K.M. by Bright v. Tustin Unified Sch. Dist., 113 LRP 3187 (9th Cir. 08/06/13), the 9th Circuit of Appeals determined that the fact the school district developed an appropriate IEP for a student with a hearing impairment does not mean the student  may not have claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

     This case involved two California high school students with hearing impairments who had requested word-for-word transcription so that they could fully understand the teacher and fellow students without undue strain and consequent stress. The students were eligible for services under the IDEA and each had requested Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) either under the IDEA or Title II of the ADA (Title II is that part of the ADA that applies to state and local government entities, including school districts). CART is a word-for-word transcription service, like court reporting, in which a trained stenographer provides real-time captioning that appears on a computer monitor. In both cases, the school districts denied the CART services but offered other accommodations. The parents appealed and the cases proceeded to federal district court. 

     The district courts ruled that real-time transcription services were not necessary for the students to receive a free appropriate public education and need not be included on the IEP. Thus, the districts had complied with the IDEA. The courts then held that a valid IEP that complies with the IDEA, rules out an ADA claim. 

     The two district courts determined that (1) a valid IEP under the IDEA satisfies the requirement to provide a free appropriate public education under 504 and (2) Section 504 and Title II of the ADA are similar statutes, thus a valid IEP also complies with the ADA.  This reasoning was based on the fact that section 504 requires that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education and the 504 regulations indicate that implementing an appropriate IEP is one means of complying with 504’s free appropriate public education requirement. Since 504 and Title II of the ADA are similar statutes, complying with 504 means complying with the ADA. Thus, once the IEP is determined appropriate, the 504/ADA claims are foreclosed. 

     The 9th Circuit disagreed. It said that the three statutes, the IDEA, 504, and ADA, each have different purposes and requirements. The IDEA is focused on an IEP process that should result in providing students with disabilities a free appropriate public education. The ADA and 504 have substantive requirements to ensure students with disabilities are not subjected to discrimination. 

     To that end, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has promulgated regulations to prevent such discrimination under the ADA. Those regulations include a requirement that public entities, such as school districts, take steps to ensure that communications with individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. Moreover, those public entities, including school districts, must furnish auxiliary aids and services to afford individuals with disabilities equal access to the program being offered. Real-time-computer-transcription-services are specifically included in the definition of auxiliary aids and services

     The purpose of these auxiliary services under the ADA is to provide equal access for the student to the educational program offered by the school district. Providing equal access is not the same as providing a free appropriate public education under the IDEA. Ensuring equal access may require providing auxiliary aids and services that may be in addition to services required under the IDEA. Thus, a school district’s compliance with the IDEA may not always mean compliance with the ADA.  The court also noted that administrative agencies are generally deferred to in interpreting their own regulations. Here, the DOJ had filed an amicus brief supporting that the ADA effective communication requirement for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing was different than the requirements of the IDEA. 

     Finally, this decision does not mean these two students will receive the real-time transcription services. The 9th Circuit sent the cases back to the district courts so that those courts and the parties could relook at the issues based on this court’s decision. A key discussion in the districts courts will be whether providing the transcription services fundamentally alters the nature of the school program or is an undue financial and administrative burden on the school districts. If so, the ADA would not require the school districts to provide those auxiliary aids and services.

 

Charter School should have acted proactively to evaluate 504 eligibility for student who began to use a wheelchair

     The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determined that a Charter School in Colorado should have noticed when a student with cerebral palsy suddenly began using a wheelchair and should have evaluated her eligibility for a 504 plan. Aurora (CO) Public Schools 61 IDELR 83 (OCR Jan. 14, 2013), involved a student with cerebral palsy who attended a district Charter School. In January 2010, she began having difficulty climbing stairs and standing for long periods and started to use a wheelchair. Previously, she had not consistently used a wheelchair. Her mother and members of the Charter School staff met to discuss her use of the wheelchair and how to help her with it. The parent did not request a 504 evaluation and the school did not conduct one. Later, the mother filed a complaint with OCR alleging the Charter School should have initiated an evaluation. The Charter School responded by saying that: (1) the parent had not requested a 504 evaluation, and (2) the student was performing well academically, and thus, was not eligible for 504. 

     The OCR investigation found that, in fact, the Charter School had not evaluated the student for a suspected disability and the School did not have a designated 504/ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator or a grievance process that complied with the 504/ADA requirements. Moreover, OCR noted that: (1) the School had an affirmative duty to identify and locate every qualified student with a disability and the School may not require a parent to request an evaluation, and (2) the fact the student is performing well academically did not exclude her from 504 eligibility. Under 504, a student is eligible if she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking seeing, hearing, learning, and breathing. The OCR specifically noted that “Although the School’s primary purpose is education, its obligation to follow Section 504 and Title II regarding its provision of services to students and others using School programs is not limited to disabilities that affect academic performance.”   

     The Charter School’s Colorado school district signed a resolution agreement to comply with section 504 and the ADA. In the resolution agreement the school district agreed, among other things,  to convene a team meeting to determine the student’s 504 eligibility, publish on the Charter School’s website and in the parent handbook new  504 policy and procedures for identifying and providing services to students (including grievance  procedures and designating a 504/ADA coordinator, submit the new policies to OCR for approval, and provide training to all Charter School staff on the requirements of 504 and Title II of the ADA. 

     There are a couple of interesting points about this decision.  First, it’s unfortunate, but not unusual, for schools to fail to understand that eligibility for 504 services does not turn solely on a student having an impairment that substantially limits the major life activity of learning. A student may be performing very well academically and still need supports such as access to insulin injections, rest periods, a modified class schedule, a sign language interpreter, a note taker or access to a tape recorder, or Brailed or large print materials. Second, note that while it was the Charter School that violated 504, the school district responsible for the Charter School signed the resolution agreement with OCR and is responsible for ensuring compliance with the agreement. The school district approved the charter for the Charter School and is responsible for ensuring the Charter School’s compliance with federal law the same as any other district school. 

District Cannot Use Behavior Contract to Justify Disciplinary Change in Placement without Manifestation Determination

 

In Waynesboro (PA) Area School District, 112 LRP 26149 (OCR 02/17/12), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the fact a high school student with a learning disability had signed a behavioral contract did not allow the school district to change his placement without conducting a manifestation determination review (MDR). The student was African American and had been subjected to a number of incidents of racial harassment, some of which had resulted n physical altercations. The high school had made some effort to intervene with the harassing students and a counselor had worked with the student on how to handle these situations. In addition the student, his parent, the special education teacher, and acting assistant principal signed a Student Behavioral Contract with the student.  The contract included a provision that the student would resolve conflict in a non-violent manner.

According to the district, the contract was drawn up because the student had been involved in several altercations, some of which, but not all, were the result of racial harassment. Unfortunately, the student later had a physical altercation with another African American student and, based on breaching the contract, his placement was changed to an alternative high school. Before the change in placement he was suspended for several days, bringing his total suspensions for the school year to twelve. Based on its belief that violating the Student Behavioral Contract justified the change in placement, the school did not conduct an MDR prior to changing his placement to the alternative high school.

The student’s parent filed a complaint with OCR alleging racial harassment and a violation of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act because the district failed to conduct a manifestation determination before changing the placement, failed to conduct an evaluation prior to the change in placement, and failed to provide the parent with her procedural safeguards. The Office for Civil Rights found in the parent’s favor and required the district to provide the MDR and evaluate the students need for compensatory services to compensate for educational services he may have lost as a result of the illegal change in placement.

District’s alleged disregard of bullying supports parents’ 504 and ADA claims

     In Sutherlin v. Independent School District No 40 of Nowata County Oklahoma 113 LRP 20535 (N.D. Okla. 05/13/13), the U. S. District Court of Northern Oklahoma ruled that the parents of a 13-year-old boy with Asperger’s disorder and a learning disability could sue the school district under Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the boy was subjected to disability based bullying and harassment. The parents claimed that between 2010 and 2012, they reported 32 incidents to the school district of other students physically assaulting their son and mocking him about his difficulties with socialization. The parents also reported that other students called the boy names including the R word, crazy, creepy, and freak. The parents alleged that the school district failed to investigate these incidents or take further action to prevent future bullying.

     In court the school district argued that the parents had not shown that the harassment by other students was disability based or that the school district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. The court, drawing from other cases, set out a five point test for establishing a claim under 504 and the ADA for disability-based student- on- student harassment.

  1. The student is an individual with a disability;

  2. He or she was harassed based on the disability;

  3. The harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive that it altered the condition of his or her education and created an abusive educational environment;

  4. The school district knew about the harassment, and

  5. The school district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. 

     Here, the school district agreed with the five point test, but disagreed that the parents had shown that the harassment was disability based or that the district was deliberately indifferent to it. The court, however, determined that the name-calling and mocking, if true, was sufficient to show disability based harassment. Moreover, the parents had alleged several instances in which the school district did not take action to cease or prevent the bullying behavior. The court stated, if the allegations were true, they showed deliberate indifference by the school district. Thus, the court denied the school district’s motion to dismiss the parents’ 504 and ADA claims and the disability based harassment case will move on.

Justice Department Determines Private School Voucher Programs Must Comply with the ADA

     Last week the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) affirming that Wisconsin must ensure that students with disabilities who seek to enroll or are enrolled in private schools through Wisconsin’s taxpayer funded voucher program are not discriminated against on the basis of their disability. Wisconsin enacted laws creating the tax payer funded private school voucher program over 20 years ago and it was implemented in the city of Milwaukee by DPI. In June 2011 a collation of advocacy groups (the ACLU Foundation for Racial Justice, ACLU of Wisconsin, and Disability Rights Wisconsin) filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that students in the Milwaukee Public Schools are (1) deterred by DPI and the private voucher schools from participating in the voucher program, (2) denied admission to voucher schools when they do apply, and (3) expelled or constructively forced to leave voucher schools as a result of policies and practices that fail to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities. These advocacy groups claimed the actions by DPI and the private voucher schools violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

          The Department of Justice investigated the allegations of the complaint and interviewed parents and public school district officials. Based on the investigation, DOJ determined that the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) must do more to enforce the ADA requirements that govern the treatment of students with disabilities who participate in the private school voucher program. Because the voucher program is publicly funded and administered by the state, it must comply with Title II of the ADA. Title II is the section of the ADA that applies to state and local governmental entities. Thus, DPI must ensure students with disabilities are not discriminated against based on their disability. According to the letter:

“DPI’s obligation to eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities in its administration of the school choice program is not obviated by the fact that the schools participating in the program are private secular and religious schools. Indeed, courts recognize that the agency administering a public program has the authority and obligation under Title II to take appropriate steps in its enforcement of program requirements to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities; regardless of whether services are delivered directly by a public entity or provided through a third-party.”

Specifically, DOJ required the Wisconsin DOI to comply with:

  1. ADA Title II Obligations. DPI must eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities or students whose parents or guardians have disabilities. The private or religious status of the individual voucher schools does not absolve DPI of that responsibility.
  2. Complaints. DPI must establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to file disability-based complaints and provide DOJ with copies of those complaints.
  3. Data and Reporting. DPI must provide detailed data regarding how students with disabilities are being served by voucher schools.
  4. Public Outreach. DPI must conduct outreach to educate families of students with disabilities about school choice programs, and provide specific and accurate information about the rights of students with disabilities and the services available at voucher schools.
  5. Monitoring and Oversight. DPI must ensure that voucher schools do not discourage students with disabilities from applying for admission, or improperly reject a student with a disability who does apply to a voucher school. Voucher schools cannot exit/expel a student with a disability unless the school has first determined, on a case-by-case basis, that there are no reasonable modifications to school policies, practices or procedures that would enhance the school’s ability to serve the student.
  6. ADA Training for Voucher Schools. DPI must provide mandatory ADA training to voucher schools on a periodic basis and submit a copy of the training materials and attendance sheets to DOJ.
  7. Guidance. By the end of 2013, DPI must develop program guidance to assist and educate voucher schools about ADA compliance. That guidance must be developed in consultation with DOJ.
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