What About Kids with FAPE Claims that Pre-Date Quarantine?

As much as special education in general is all up in the air in most quarantined school districts, with unlawful conduct being perpetrated by school officials who have never believed in the IDEA seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of its obligations while still collecting federal special education dollars, there is a subpopulation within special education that is even more affected by this than others. That subpopulation is made up of the students whose educational and civil rights were already being violated by their local education agencies (LEAs) prior to the quarantine.

There is huge debate going on right now about Betsy DeVos, the Trump Administration’s appointed Secretary of Education, and the waiver power she does and does not have under the law to exempt school districts from delivering a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Congress has now asked her to testify as to what parts of the IDEA she thinks needs to be waived and we don’t know how it will vote on the matter.

More and more comes out on this topic each day. The Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), the national nonprofit professional organization that advocates and, where necessary, litigates on a national level on topics like these has published its own policy statement about the current situation, which can be found on the COPAA website.

Currently, there are no waivers of the IDEA in place. The only exemption right now is that LEAs that are not providing distance learning options to their general education students don’t have to provide education to their special education students, either. Until there are actual Congressionally approved waivers, nothing has changed with respect to implementing the IDEA for those special education students served by LEAs that are currently providing distance learning to their general education students.

Nonetheless, I have four families with students in one particular school district that is currently providing distance learning to its general education students and something half-baked in terms of online options for its special education students. All four of these families received generic Prior Written Notices (PWNs) over this last weekend advising that it’s impossible to implement IEPs under the current circumstances, even though it very often is possible and the administrator sending these things out has a decades-long history of throwing money at lawyers to defend her decisions instead of actual services for students. Three of those families already have due process cases filed or about to be filed.

Just like everything in special education, PWNs are supposed to be individualized to each student, but she sent the same PWN to the families of everybody in her district in special education, telling them all that implementing their IEPs under the circumstances is impossible with no examination of each student’s unique, individual situations. She may have finally dug herself into a hole that she can’t get back out of.

This administrator made unilateral decisions on behalf of her district outside of the IEP process during a time when the IDEA has not been waived in any kind of way, in part or in whole. It’s a systemic violation of the law memorialized in writing on district letterhead to the family of every special education student in her district. She may have well just created a class action lawsuit against her employer.

Children with disabilities from low-income, single parent, immigrant, and non-white households were already getting the short end of the stick when it comes to special education. Being white and affluent doesn’t necessarily protect you, but it does increase your odds of avoiding at least some FAPE violations.

That said, the aforementioned administrator sending out PWNs that break the law on her employer’s behalf worked most of her career for an affluent school district where the only way to get a decent IEP was to sue the crap out of her district. Her department would play to the egos of affluent parents and tell them special education was a welfare service and they would be better off privately paying for services, thereby collecting federal IDEA dollars without actually having to spend them on services.

Now she’s working for a district in an economically depressed community with a largely Latino population and is preying on low-income, non-English speaking, families of color. Maybe she thinks they aren’t going to stand up to her taking advantage of the pandemic to bring in IDEA dollars without having to deliver on IDEA obligations. She’s wrong.

I already had cases that were pending due process on my caseload when this pandemic hit. The students involved in those cases were already being under-served, if served at all, and now they’re sitting at home with even more nothing. One student’s parent has an elderly parent in a nursing home she can’t visit and is working from home (or at least trying to) while her adult autistic child who is still eligible for special education has one meltdown after another because of the sudden disruption in routine and her inability to go out and do anything (trips into the community were being used as reinforcers as part of her behavior program, as well as community-based instructional opportunities, before all of this hit).

This parent is understandably furious. All that she’s gotten so far from her daughter’s teachers is a useless Google classroom link that takes her to a page full of nothing to do with her daughter’s IEP goals. And, while her daughter’s IEP makes clear that she requires “highly trained staff” to meet her goals, all she’s got right now is her frustrated mom and useless downloaded worksheets that her mother doesn’t know how to teach to her and she doesn’t know how to complete. There is no support from the teaching staffs to help this parent engage her daughter in the distance learning option, such as it is, that they’ve been given.

This student is from the same district mentioned above that is sending unlawful F-You letters on PWN forms to its special education families. I have three other students in this district, two of them already with litigation pending for violations that occurred before the quarantine. They were already being denied a FAPE before quarantine, and they sure as hell aren’t getting a FAPE now.

I’ve already written about the impact of the quarantine on special education before to some extent, but I want to hammer a particular point once again: Many special education students are at risk of significant regression, which is the loss of previously learned knowledge and skills, during lengthy breaks from instruction. These students are eligible for Extended School Year (ESY) services for this very reason; summer breaks, and sometimes winter breaks, are just too long for them to go without services or they have to make up for lost ground once they return to school, which makes them unavailable for learning anything new.

The impact of the current situation on these students in particular stands to compound an already egregious denial of FAPE. If they were already being denied a FAPE before this all happened, additional regression on top of that will create deficits that will never be overcome.

As of right now, no IDEA waivers have been permitted. Congress is waiting for Mrs. DeVos to tell it what waivers she wants to push through in response to the pandemic and mass quarantines. There is significant fear that the waivers Mrs. DeVos will request will include exemptions from implementing all or part of the IDEA.

The consequences to students if Mrs. DeVos is successful in getting IDEA waivers are obvious. What is not quite so obvious is what becomes of federal special education dollars to school districts if she manages to get any or all of the IDEA waived. While some school districts may be ready to embrace reduced duty and accountability, do they realize that IDEA dollars are tied to complying with the law? Does Mrs. DeVos intend to use IDEA waivers to not only reduce accountability for the public schools, but to also reduce their special education funding? How many school districts are willing to walk away from special education dollars in order to get out of having to implement IEPs?

Parents of children with disabilities, their extended families, their friends, and any taxpayers who otherwise get it need to act on this right now. You need to reach out to your representatives in Congress to tell them that any IDEA waivers are unacceptable. There is a way to deliver a FAPE to most special education students right now; it just takes cleverness and ingenuity, things most government agencies are not particularly known for. Clever problem-solving is generally unaccepted in institutions built on political corruption.

So, here’s your call to action: Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them that no IDEA waivers are acceptable or necessary. Look up your Senators here, and your Representatives here. You can also use our easy-to-use form letter generator or sign our online petition. If you are listening to this as a podcast rather than reading it as a blog, you can find the links in the text-only portion of this post.

It shouldn’t be necessary to have to fight to keep civil and educational rights in place for our nation’s children, but it is. Many LEAs are pushing compulsory education laws by threatening families with truancy proceedings if they don’t participate in distance learning options, but then are looking for any and all excuses to not actually deliver a real education, particularly to their special education students.

These distance learning options are all about keeping those Average Daily Attendance dollars coming in, I assure you. LEAs can’t live without that money and its based on attendance, which is why they are threatening to criminally prosecute parents who don’t implement their half-assed distance learning options for truancy. But, to actually deliver a real education in exchange for those dollars seems too much to ask, and it’s a thousand times worse for students with special needs.

It may quickly become the case that the only way for families of special education students to protect themselves against unjustified truancy charges, which are tried by local superior court judges who know nothing about how special education is actually supposed to be delivered, is to file for due process and make the record that the education being offered to those special education students during quarantine is inappropriate to their needs and they are unable to access learning as a result.

Parents should not feel forced to make their kids do something that will not help or just make things worse out of fear of being criminally prosecuted for truancy if they don’t. The sad reality, however, is that so long as they log or call in every day to whatever distance learning platform has been made available to them, even if their kids aren’t learning anything, they will not be prosecuted for truancy because those logs will be used as proof of attendance so schools can get their Average Daily Attendance dollars. That still does nothing to ensure their receipt of a FAPE, though.

Now is the time to reach out to advocates and attorneys if your child with special education needs isn’t getting appropriate instruction and related services while sheltering in place. You can find people to help you by searching online for “special education advocates near me” and “special education attorneys near me.”

Just be careful of the con artists out there, though. There are lawyers who will claim to represent families but then cut backroom deals with the attorneys representing the LEAs in which they convince the family to sign settlement agreements that short-changes their kids and eliminates their claims against the LEAs. There are also lay advocates who mean well, but don’t know the applicable science or law.

You should be leery of lawyers who have been in practice for years but have no litigation history. If they could actually litigate, they’d do it. But, if they can’t, they’ll get a few thousands dollars in fees for selling out their clients via backroom deals cut with school district lawyers and administrators. There are sleazy people on both sides, so parents do have to be choosy about who represents them.

Your state should have some kind of online database of due process decisions that you can search by an attorney’s name. If no due process decisions come up with that attorney’s name, and they’ve been in practice for years, that’s a red flag. If you search the decisions by attorney name and the results produce only cases that the attorney has lost, that’s another kind of red flag.

The good lawyers’ caseloads already get impacted by this time of the school year, but this situation just takes it to a whole different level, so parents should find someone fast if they think they even might need the help. One source that helps parents find advocates and attorneys is COPAA. It has guidelines to parents for choosing a special education attorney and/or advocate, as well as a searchable directory of COPAA members by location.

You will note that I am not listed. I am not a COPAA member and with good reason. As much as I appreciate what COPAA does on a national level, particularly with respect to its amicus briefs, it has no membership options for paralegals. This isn’t about bashing COPAA because there are things about it that I genuinely love, but there’s also things about it that I find wholly unacceptable.

I’m speaking to my truth, not disparaging an organization that I am, here, deliberately telling parents they should check out as a valuable resource. My issues with COPAA are mine, but I’m sharing them here for the benefit of those who search the database I’ve referred them to, don’t find me on it, and wonder why.

If I go to the COPAA conferences, I can only attend the workshops for parents and other advocates, where I spend the whole time either biting my tongue or correcting the presenters because they’re disseminating misinformation, and I never learn anything I didn’t already know. I’m not allowed to attend any of the attorney sessions, even though I totally could use the MCLEs for my paralegal status.

I can’t even subscribe to the COPAA listserv for attorneys, even when it contains information that would benefit my supervising attorneys for me to have access to it. My supervising attorneys are not even allowed to share it with me, even if it pertains to a task they are delegating to me. Until COPAA makes a space for me and people who work in the profession as I do, I can’t justify the expense of a COPAA membership or its conferences.

Besides, when I’ve gone to the conferences, I’ve walked through the tables and booths between sessions and, every year, there sits a table set up by a non-public school that broke one of my student’s arms during an unlawful restraint several years ago. When this issue was raised with COPAA the first time I saw this bunch at a conference, they ignored my supervising attorney on that case and continued to take money from these child abusers for the table space each year after that. I’m not okay with that.

Given the poor instruction options available to me at the COPAA conferences, the presence of known child abusers at the conferences, and the overwhelming evidence I’ve observed that far too many people only attend it so they can drink to excess and cheat on their spouses for a week, I don’t find the COPAA conferences worth the thousands of dollars in fees, hotel and travel costs, and lost billable time to be worth it. Plus, they hold it in the middle of the busiest time of the school year, which makes no sense at all. I’ve always got way too much work happening when the conferences are held to attend, anyway.

So, while I don’t have a high opinion of the COPAA conferences, I have a very high opinion of the brilliant legal minds that write COPAA’s amicus briefs and I’ve agreed with every one of them I’ve ever read 100%. Nothing is perfect and COPAA is a good resource for many. The actual work COPAA does, aside from its annual conferences, is stellar and I can look past the conferences for the sake of the bigger picture, which is legally protecting children with disabilities from educational and civil rights violations.

COPAA has taken on the U.S. Department of Education with bold, accurate words in legal proceedings that make my heart want to burst with pride in our profession. That’s what matters to me about what COPAA does. That is, in my opinion, the most important thing COPAA does.

If you are looking for an attorney or advocate, the COPAA membership directory can be a good resource for many parents. Just know that there are a lot of other professionals out there who are really good at their jobs who are not members, there are members who aren’t that good at their jobs, and there a non-members who haven’t signed up because they’re crooked and don’t want to get caught by those of us who are doing this work for the right reasons. Like everything else in life, it’s a mixed bag.

Being on the COPAA membership directory doesn’t automatically mean someone is good and not being on it doesn’t mean someone is bad. It’s just a list of people who work in this field and pay membership fees to COPAA, but it’s the only national directory of advocates and attorneys that I know of and it’s foolish to not regard it as a valuable resource. Just take it for what it is and don’t think that hiring a COPAA member automatically means you don’t have to put much thought into it.

As I stated before, the membership directory page includes links to COPAA’s guidelines for finding a qualified attorney or advocate, which is pretty sound advice. Regardless of whether an advocate or attorney is a COPAA member or not, COPAA’s guidance as to how to vet attorneys and advocates is still good.

If you are the parent of a child with special needs who is not receiving a FAPE while in quarantine and your LEA is providing alternative learning options to its general education students, as of the time of this writing, there are no waivers of any part of the IDEA and it is still fully in force. This isn’t about kicking your LEA while it’s down; this is about protecting your child from being kicked by his/her LEA while your child is down. LEAs have millions apiece of taxpayer dollars intended to pay for the education of our children and that damn sure better be what it’s spent on, regardless of the situation.

Students who were already being denied a FAPE before the pandemic are now further compromised. How this is going to play out in litigation remains to be seen. If the rule of law is followed, there are no exceptions to providing a FAPE right now. Any FAPE violations that were already going on before quarantine have not been made better by it and families in those situations very likely need to consult with a qualified special education attorney sooner rather than later, if they haven’t already.

This is a difficult time for everyone, but the true measure of a society’s health is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members during times of crisis. While some fascist LEA administrators may see this as an opportunity to finally carry out their bigoted agendas and terminate special education like they’ve been wanting to since 1975, those of us who still prefer democracy to fascism have to stand up and enforce the laws that have been part of the fabric of our country for the last 45 years.

As soon as one civil rights law falls, all the rest of them fall, the tenuous thread that our democracy is holding onto right now will snap, and we will find ourselves suddenly living in a real oligarchic regime. The moment it becomes okay to violate the civil and educational rights of children with disabilities, it will become okay to violate everyone else’s rights, too. Every protected class – women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income families, single-parent households, etc. – will lose rights one by one thereafter until no one has freedom anymore, except the wealthy oligarchs.

While I am focused on the individual needs of the children and families involved, I can’t help but appreciate the over-arching ramifications for democracy at large. We protect everyone’s rights, or we protect no one’s. True democracy means everyone is equal, including special education students.

And, regardless of whether IDEA waivers get approved, no one is contemplating waivers of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the IDEA is no longer enforceable, those laws still are and Betsy DeVos has no control over them. So, if she manages to get IDEA waivers passed by Congress, families will still have recourse under 504 and the ADA, which can have harsher ramifications than the IDEA on LEAs.

The IDEA diminishes “equal access to education” but expects no expense to be spared in the pursuit of that watered down version of equal access; the ADA says “equal access” must be 100% equal, unless it creates an undue burden on the responsible party, which it has to prove. We’ve not had civil rights litigation under 504 or the ADA since either of them passed that sets a precedent for what we’re dealing with right now, but I can promise you that what special education students are getting at home during quarantine doesn’t come close to equal access to education as that being given to their non-disabled peers.

These are uncharted waters and only time will tell how this is going to play out, but it’s up to those of us who do this work and the families we serve to do everything we can to protect our children with special needs. Please contact your Senators and Representatives, tell them that no IDEA waivers should be granted, and let’s all keep the pressure on until we have an answer. In the meantime, nothing has changed and the law is still enforceable, so we need to enforce it.

While many courts have moved to a work-from-home model (I recently watched a federal court trial in which Google was accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban that allowed me to see into the homes of three federal court judges and the Plaintiffs’ attorney), some state special education hearing offices have closed down, ceased operations except to issue continuances and stays, and are accruing a backlog during quarantine that is going to explode with new cases from all the FAPE claims arising from school district misconduct currently going on. Parents may need to use this time to find an attorney, start organizing their evidence, and file to preserve their timelines, even if they aren’t going to get in front of a judge right away.

For families that were already facing due process before the quarantine, if their states are operating their complaints and due process hearings according to a work-from-home model, which Texas is doing, then there should be some kind of mitigation in place to prevent that huge of a backlog. If three federal court judges on a panel can hold a trial to determine if Google was complicit in the Taliban’s use of its technologies to engage in acts of terrorism from their homes, special education due process cases can be tried the same way.

If you have a due process case that was pending before the quarantine, then you’ve likely already been communicating with your attorney about what is going on. If you haven’t, yet, do it now. You need your attorney looking into what due process mechanisms remain intact in your state and what the procedures currently are. Any competent attorney will have already done this, but may be so overwhelmed by the sudden explosion of casework that is starting to happen that they haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it, yet. Don’t overwhelm them by stalker dialing ever 5 minutes, but do reach out and make an appointment to discuss how all of this impacts your case.

There is never a good time to participate in litigation. For most parents, “litigation” and “good time” generally don’t go together. But, this is definitely a worse time to be pursuing due process in a system that was already glutted with cases. The sooner you act, the better.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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