School districts in Arizona may have to repay hundreds of parents for services that their children with disabilities should have received at school, under a legal settlement reached last week.
The agreement, approved March 26 by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Broomfield, requires the Arizona Department of Education to ensure that local districts make up for instances in the past four years when the rights of students with disabilities were not properly met.
No dollar amount was specified in the settlement, which stems from a 1999 class action filed by a group of parents against the education department. The suit maintained that parents had turned to the state after their home districts did not provide services they believed their children needed.
The state, even when its investigators backed up those parental complaints, did not always force districts to follow through on recommendations for change. Arizona has about 88,000 students who require special education services, according to the lawsuit.
“We are thrilled with the settlement agreement, and think it shows a tremendous commitment by the state to students with disabilities,” said Jerri Katzerman, a lawyer for the Arizona Center for Disability Law, which filed the suit on behalf of parents. “No more giving school districts two, three, and four chances to follow the law.”
The education department lost its bid to have the case dismissed four months after it was filed.
Under the settlement, the department is required to withhold funding from districts that fail to comply immediately with the findings of department investigators in disputes between administrators and parents over special education services. In the case of a charter school that does not comply, the state could revoke the school’s charter.
“We think students are the big winners here,” said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the state education department. “We are very pleased we could reach an agreement.”
Speeding Up Reviews
Ms. Katzerman said the department also agreed to expedite the review process. After a complaint is received, the agency will review it within three days, she said.
In the past, she contended, “the department would discourage parents from filing complaints, or at least they weren’t advised of their rights.”
Now the state will draft specific “talking points” for officials to follow when receiving a phone call about a complaint, to make sure parents are advised of their rights. A special monitor will be appointed by the education department and the Arizona Center for Disability Law to oversee the changes in the system required under the settlement, Ms. Katzerman said.
Since 1997, about 1,000 parents have complained to the Arizona department about the special education services at their children’s schools. The department’s investigators backed 300 of those complaints.
Under the settlement, a special committee will be set up to review claims of parents who are unsatisfied with the way the system handled their complaints in the past four years. Parents who filed their original complaints from June 1997 through the end of last year will be eligible to have a review of those concerns by that five-member committee, which is to include special education teachers and advocates.
“We think it’s a very friendly process for parents that takes lawyers out of the decisionmaking,” Ms. Katzerman said. “All it costs is a stamp.”
If the committee decides parents wrongly paid for out-of-pocket expenses for services that their children should have received at school, districts may be forced to reimburse the parents, or provide extra hours of the service to make up for lost time.
“Only those districts that have ignored our past findings may find themselves with additional monetary issues,” Ms. Penny said. “There will be no additional expense to them than what they were supposed to be doing all along.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2001 edition of Education Week as Arizona Agrees To Repay Parents For Missed Special Ed. Services