‘No evidence’ of discrimination against special education students, federal investigation dismissed – IndyStar

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A federal investigation into the Indiana Department of Education over the concerns that students with disabilities were being denied equal access to education during the COVID-19 pandemic has been dismissed. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said, in a letter issued Friday to Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, it has no evidence that IDOE is currently discriminating against students with disabilities and that it did not have sufficient, specific information that IDOE was denying students with disabilities equal access to educational programs, discriminating against students with disabilities, or “acting in a manner inconsistent with its obligations” at the time the investigation was opened. 

Under federal law, schools are required to provide a “free appropriate public education” to each qualified student with a disability.

What we know: The investigation of special education in Indiana during the pandemic

OCR opened the investigation in January over what it called “disturbing reports” that the state denied students with disabilities equal access to education during the COVID-19 pandemic. The allegations centered around reports that parents of disabled students in Indiana schools filed multiple complaints with IDOE alleging that students were forced by local school districts into “one size fits all” remote learning programs, instead of individualized programs designed to meet their unique needs.

Qualifying students with disabilities are guaranteed services, spelled out in Individualized Education Plans or 504 Plans, to ensure they have equal access to a free public education. Some of those services are hard to replicate virtually or through remote delivery models.

And when schools unexpectedly closed statewide in March, many special education students struggled to access their remote education and receive the services they needed. A national disability rights advocate said that schools across the country struggled throughout the pandemic to meet the needs of students, despite their best efforts. 

What you need to know: Family’s complaint to the state about HSE special education

Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network, told IndyStar in January that schools were unprepared for how long in-person instruction would be restricted. And while things had improved, students around the country were still not being properly served. 

At the time the investigation was opened, more than two dozen Hoosier families had filed COVID-19 related complaints with IDOE but it remains unclear how many complaints the OCR received or what prompted the investigation in the first place.

Over the second half of the last school year, most schools reopened for fulltime or at least greater degrees of in-person instruction and most are planning to fully reopen in the fall. 

Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.