INDIANAPOLIS —The Indiana Department of Education is looking into complaints related to how Indiana schools’ treatment of students with disabilities amid a federal probe.
The United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Jan. 12 letter to newly appointed Indiana Secretary of Education Dr. Katie Jenner, informing her that the federal agency is opening an investigation due to “disturbing reports” involving the state's educational services to children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Aug. 5, WRTV Investigates broke the story of Hamilton Southeastern Schools couple Greg and Erin Dague, who filed a formal complaint to get their disabled son Dyllan back to in-person school.
The USDOE Office for Civil Rights representative told Jenner it was particularly troubled by “reports that the parents of disabled students in Indiana schools have filed multiple complaints” with IDOE “alleging that disabled students have been forced by local school districts into virtual learning programs that were not individualized to meet those students’ unique needs as set out in IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) or §504 plans, and instead the schools have used ‘one size fits all’ remote learning programs.”
The federal agency said it is also concerned that the Indiana Department of Education has failed to provide a "free appropriate public education" to each qualified student with a disability as required by federal law and denied students with disabilities equal access to education.
The Office for Civil Rights included a link to media coverage about the Dague family in its letter to Dr. Jenner.
As WRTV Investigates reported in December, the Dagues reached a resolution with Hamilton Southeastern Schools and Dyllan is back to receiving in-person services and education.
Dague’s attorney, Tom Blessing, said the federal investigation should send a message to other school districts as well.
“Since all this started back in March, many school districts seemed to think that compliance with federal law was optional,” Blessing said. “ I’ve helped several parents whose disabled children simply cannot learn sitting in front of computer, not mention get their therapy services or interact with their peers, or cannot wear a mask at school. Unfortunately, thousands of parents don’t understand their child’s legal rights or think to consult an advocate or lawyer, so they end up just accepting whatever the school tells them.”
Blessing said when school districts across Indiana don’t follow the law, it creates a systemic problem that can’t be fixed by a small number of individual students filing complaints.
“I’m glad that the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is looking into this serious problem and hopeful that its investigation helps every child with a disability in our state,” Blessing said.
Dyllan attends New Britton Elementary. He's nonverbal and also has quadriplegic cerebral palsy.
He receives occupational, physical, and speech therapy in school, as well as academic instruction.
WRTV Investigates reached out to the Indiana Department of Education, which is looking into the allegations outlined by the federal Office for Civil Rights.
“I have asked my team for a full briefing on all complaints filed prior to my arrival in this office on Monday, January 11, and pledge to provide every available support to help our districts and schools meet the needs of Indiana’s special education students,” Katie Jenner said in a statement to WRTV. “As we enter into day four of our administration, I want to assure you I take very seriously the department’s responsibility to support our schools, students and families, especially during these unprecedented times, and I am committed to working with my local, state and federal colleagues to both understand and address these concerns.”
OCR’s directed investigation will examine whether Indiana has excluded qualified persons with disabilities from participation in, deny them the benefits of, or otherwise subject them to discrimination under any program or activity, in violation of any federal laws and regulations.
OCR’s Chicago office will conduct the investigation.