INDIANAPOLIS — The United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has dismissed its investigation into how Indiana schools treat students with disabilities after finding the state did not violate federal law.
According to a June 25 letter from OCR to the Indiana Department of Education, OCR said it found “no information indicating that IDOE is excluding or denying students with disabilities equal access to educational programs, discriminating against students with disabilities.”
OCR said it also determined that it did not have sufficient, specific information indicating that IDOE was excluding or denying students with disabilities equal access to educational programs, discriminating against students with disabilities, or acting in a manner inconsistent with its obligations under federal law.
According to the letter, dismissing the investigation does not prevent OCR from opening an investigation against IDOE if at any time OCR receives a complaint or other information indicating a possible failure to comply with the Section 504 or Title II regulations or any other law or regulation OCR enforces.
As WRTV reported in January, OCR was looking into complaints related to Indiana schools’ treatment of students with disabilities.
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 was 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 was 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 a computer, not (to) 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 U.S. 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.