Oklahoma education officials recently ordered the Tulsa school district to ensure that the individualized plans of all its special education students comply with federal law—an enforcement action that affects thousands of children and youths in the 39,000-student system.
And it all started with one parent who used a lesser-known complaint option under federal special education law that can yield fast and expansive results, if a concern is found to have legal merit.
Most people who know special education are familiar with due-process hearings, which allow parents to file a complaint with a school district related to their child’s individualized education program, or IEP. Those cases are heard by hearing officers and can be appealed to the courts—even the U.S. Supreme Court, in the rarest of cases.
But the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also lets individuals file complaints directly to the state instead of—or in addition to—filing a due-process complaint. The state has 60 days to investigate, and the findings are not appealable by either side.
Success rates for parents filing state complaints are significantly higher than when parents bring cases before independent hearing officers, according to a 2017 study of five states. Special education law expert Perry Zirkel found that parents prevailed before hearing officers in 24 percent of cases in those states. In contrast, parents received favorable rulings in half the cases they brought directly to the state, said Zirkel, a professor emeritus at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Todd Loftin, the Oklahoma special education director, said his state sees about 30 complaints a year. He said that relatively few are like the Tulsa complaint, where parent Carmon Pool Drummond specifically said her concerns might apply to other “similarly situated” students.
“We feel that the state complaint in terms of the formal dispute-resolution process is one that provides closure more quickly,” Loftin said.
That said, the state complaint process has limitations. States only look back at district actions a year from the date a parent filed. And in this case, that the state didn’t order Tulsa to take any actions, such as compensatory education, for students who might have had poorly executed special education plans.
“I don’t think parents and districts are ever happy with all of the decisions we make,” Loftin said. “Parents want a lot of things through their proposed resolution. But we try to be as reasonable as possible for districts.”
One Parent’s Story
The path to the Tulsa decision began when Drummond’s 14-year-old son started high school this school year. A mother of three students enrolled in the Tulsa district, she asked that the names of her children not be used.
Her older son, assessed by private evaluators as being on the autism spectrum, needs special education support in reading, writing, and math, according to his IEP.
But his middle school teachers thought he needed to “grow up and take care of business,” Drummond said.
High school proved to be just as difficult, from Drummond’s perspective. She said she struggled to get her freshman son an updated IEP. She said her older son also had some of the same goals, written in the same language, as her younger son, a 5th grader who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And the goals for both seemed impractically broad. One goal for her sons was that “student will read and comprehend increasingly complex literary and informational texts,” but the IEP offered no useful way to measure progress, Drummond said.
At that point, Drummond said, she knew she had a few options. Her mother, a lawyer who used to specialize in representing parents in special education cases, provided her with a leg up when understanding her legal rights.
“I can go to mediation. I can go to due process,” Drummond said. But the stress, plus the need to hire a lawyer, was a major barrier. Plus, Drummond said, “If I do due process, … it’s only fixing it for my kid.” She suspected that the school district as a whole was using cut-and-paste goals for many children.
Drummond filed her complaint in late 2018. By December, her son’s individual case was resolved, with the state requiring the district to hold a meeting to develop an appropriate IEP for him.
By January, the state started investigating Drummond’s complaint on behalf of “similarly situated” students. It examined portions of the IEPs of 181 students who attended the same high school as her son. A state report released in March said that in interviews with the state investigators, teachers said that they used cut-and-paste to create IEPs, removed information from IEPs after they had been signed by parents, and held IEP meetings without an administrator or general education teacher present.
The IEPs reviewed by the state also repeated goals verbatim. For example, 152 IEPs had reading goals. The goal “students will read and comprehend increasingly complex literary and informational texts” appeared 60 times.
Of the IEPs reviewed, 113 had “written expression goals,” but more than a third of students did not even have written expression as an academic need. And the goal “students will develop and strengthen writing by engaging in a process that includes prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing” appeared 59 times.
In addition to reviewing all student IEPs, the state directed Tulsa to retrain staff members in appropriate IEP development.
“We know in Tulsa that we’ve got a great deal of work to do in order to better serve all of our students and in particular our most vulnerable students,” said Devin Fletcher, the district’s chief academic and talent officer.
And the report also means that the district needs to focus more on supporting special educators, Fletcher said.
“Not to make excuses, but we have significant turnover that happens across the district, particularly in special education classes,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on how we can better serve the adults, from a system level.”
Julie Weatherly, who represents districts in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia in special education disputes, said replicating the same goals from year to year and using the same goals for multiple students are common pitfalls that she warns districts against.
“I harp on those a lot, because obviously it takes the I"—meaning individualized—"out of IEP,” said Weatherly. “And it is going to raise eyebrows that it has been cut and pasted from someone else’s bank of goals.”
Goal “banks,” which allow teachers to choose prewritten academic accomplishments through a computer-based IEP development system, should be used sparingly, Weatherly said. The look is bad, even if the goals are somehow applicable for multiple children.
Drummond said she’s pleased that the state has ordered changes, though she plans to remain vigilant on behalf of her children.
“I really hate being that mom who is harassing people all the time,” she said. “But at least it puts attention to the fact that you can’t just ‘cookie cutter’ IEPs.”
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2019 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Parent Spotlights a Tool for Advocacy