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Civil Rights Investigation Finds Virtual Charter Violating Special Ed. Laws

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In the first move of its kind, the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has announced an agreement with the Virtual Community School of Ohio to rectify violations in the school's evaluation and placement procedures and accommodations for students with special needs.

An investigation by the civil rights office found that the school, which is a virtual charter school that serves 1,200 students across Ohio, does not provide appropriate evaluations of students before placing them on Section 504 plans. (Section 504 is the part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in schools receiving federal funds.) In fact, the school has no testing or evaluation procedures in place besides ad hoc word-of-mouth observations from the student's teacher and indications from parents about their children's needs, according to the OCR in the letter detailing the investigation. The school also does not provide appropriate information to parents about their children's rights under Section 504, as required by law, the investigation found.

When the OCR asked about the school's procedures, its Section 504/Title II coordinator said the school does not "have any process per se used to locate students who need services. She noted ... that it is difficult to provide some aspects of services, such as being able to observe students, because they are not in a classroom."

In addition to violations of procedural and evaluation processes for students with special needs, the OCR investigation also found that the way that course materials were delivered on the web were not accessible to all students, especially students who were blind or had low vision, as required by law. Many course materials were distributed in a PDF format which may not be accessible to people who use screen readers, investigators said, and many teachers posted images with no captions or text alternative, making the material inaccessible for students with vision disabilities.

As a result, the school has voluntarily agreed to the resolution agreement drafted by the OCR which outlines a series of deadlines for actions intended to rectify the school's current Section 504 problems. By Dec. 15, 2013, the school must submit policies and procedures for the evaluation and placement of students with disabilities that comply with federal laws and outline a procedure for bringing all involved staff members up to speed on the changes. After those changes are approved, the school will have 30 days to implement them.

The Virtual Community School of Ohio has until March 30, 2015 to make its website and online learning environment accessible to students with disabilities.

"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," said Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights, in a statement. "Online education environments such as this in which students reside across the state and go to school together in a totally online environment may present unique challenges. ... I commend Virtual Community School of Ohio for agreeing to address these issues as part of its agreement with OCR."

At the time of this post, representatives from the Virtual Community School of Ohio were unavailable for comment.

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