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Special Education Reforms at Center of New Settlement Agreements

The Berkeley, Calif., school system and the state of Ohio recently settled two long-running special education disputes with promises that they will better serve students with disabilities. 

The complaint against the Berkeley district was filed three years ago with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights, on behalf of students who are eligible for services under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law spells out particular accommodations that must be made for children who have certain disabling conditions.

(Section 504 is different from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides some funding to states and districts to carry out its mandates. For example, IDEA has 13 disability categories, while Section 504 has a broader definition of disability.)

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, an advocacy group with offices in Berkeley and Washington, said the district was improperly restricting access to Section 504 services. For example, some families that their children's grades were too high to merit accommodations. The district was also accused of dragging its feet on Section 504 evaluations, and of keeping children out of certain district programs if they attempted to get a 504 plan. 

In November, the 10,500-student Berkeley district entered into a voluntary agreement with the civil rights office to strengthen its identification procedures and to provide additional training for staff on proper Section 504 procedures. OCR will provide oversight to make sure those changes take place.

"We are pleased that a mutual agreement was reached, because it was aligned with the direction that [Berkeley Unified School District] was already going," the district said in a statement.

"Failure to provide necessary special education, aids, and services is all too common and widely known to result in serious social, emotional, and educational harm to students with disabilities," said Larisa Cummings, a staff attorney for the disability rights advocacy group.  "Instead of continuing practices which take a preventable toll on families, we are heartened that the district has agreed to follow the federal mandate to meet the needs of students with disabilities as guaranteed by Section 504. This agreement, long overdue, can finally begin to set things right."

Ohio Agreement Will Boost Inclusion Rates in Urban Districts

Also in November, parties came to an agreement over a special education class action lawsuit that was first filed decades ago. 

Doe v. State of Ohio was certified as a class action in 1996, said Ira Burnim, the legal dirctor of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a Washington organization that helped coordinate the legal case on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The settlement focuses on 11 school districts—Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Lima, East Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, and Zanesville— that currently have very poor academic outcomes and high levels of segregation for students with disabilities.

As part of the legal action, the plaintiffs recruited Thomas Hehir, a former director of the federal office of special education programs and currently a professor at Harvard, to examine special education outcomes in the state. Hehir's report said that the high levels of segregation among Ohio's urban students with disabilities contributes to their lower performance on state tests.

For example, Hehir's report said that 61 percent of Ohio students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in the general education classroom. But in the urban districts, the statistic is reversed: only 39 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education.Those differences cannot be explained by race and income, Hehir said. 

Burnim said that he believes the settlement was influenced by Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a 2017 Supreme Court ruling requiring that schools offer students "an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." 

"Ohio was in many ways committed to student achievement, including for students with disabilities," Burnim said. "This settlement is really our joint blueprint for helping those students with disabilities statewide, but more particularly in those 11 districts, learn in an inclusive setting." 

Brittany Halpin, the spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, said that the agreement aligns with the state's strategic plan for education

"There's good work happening in Ohio's schools, and we're excited to partner with educators, parents, community members and others to share best practices and get better in the interest of our students," Halpin said. 


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