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Federal probe opened into whether Seattle Schools failed special ed students during pandemic

caption: Adele Wheeldon, Rebekah Allen and their children.
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Adele Wheeldon, Rebekah Allen and their children.
Courtesy Adele Wheeldon

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a probe of what it called “disturbing reports” regarding Seattle Public Schools’ alleged failure to provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities during the pandemic.

In a letter to Superintendent Denise Juneau, the agency’s Office for Civil Rights said the investigation was spurred by a KUOW story about the lack of special education services after schools closed last March, including teachers specifically being instructed not to tailor remote lessons to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

“OCR is concerned that the District 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,” wrote Kimberley M. Richey, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

At a Wednesday board meeting, Juneau said the district would comply with the investigation and defended the district’s record.

“We want to emphasize the same thing that the OCR letter states, that in no way does an investigation indicate that a violation exists,” Juneau said.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have, and will continue to follow the guidance of [the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction]. Since March, every time state guidance has changed, the district has adjusted,” Juneau said.

Education attorney Charlotte Cassady said while the district may have acted in accordance with state guidelines regarding special education during the pandemic, “It doesn't mean that the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s guidance follows the federal law for students with special needs.”

Ultimately the district is responsible for following federal law and, Cassady said, it appears to have fallen quite short for students who need special education services.

For Adele Wheeldon, whose daughter is in third grade and has significant disabilities due to a brain injury, news of the federal investigation was welcome although not surprising. Wheeldon’s family was left out of online learning entirely when it began last spring, she said, and she has had to take an unpaid leave of absence from her job to care for her daughter full-time.

Last spring, her daughter received virtually no special education services, Wheeldon said, and has had minimal services and no in-person since then.

“[The district] admitted that not serving her at all from March to June was not what was supposed to happen,” Wheeldon said. “But it's what happened, and is what I think happened for almost everyone.”

Meanwhile, Wheeldon said her daughter regressed in her skills and is only now regaining the abilities she had when schools closed.

She said she and other parents have discussed the possibility of filing a class-action lawsuit against the district.

State and federal officials have urged districts to prioritize students with disabilities for in-person instruction during the pandemic, as many have needs that cannot be met remotely.

But this week, the district said fewer than 100 students are currently receiving in-person services out of an estimated 7,560 students in special education.

Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, said that she was pleased to see the Department of Education take an interest in the district’s reported failure to provide students with special education services.

“We've heard from so many families since the pandemic began who have not been receiving services like speech and occupational therapy, or specialized direct instruction in academic and social areas," White said.

Problems with the district’s special education provisions long predate Covid, she said, especially exclusion of students with disabilities from general education classrooms.

“Covid has just kind of magnified those issues.”

"I'm hoping that this investigation really opens up some of the practices that we've been concerned about in the special education system in Seattle, and helps us move the ball forward in terms of improving services for kids,” White said.

The Office for Civil Rights told Seattle Schools that its investigation will begin within a week.

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