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Feds Investigate Indiana Schools’ Use of Virtual Learning for Special Education Students During Pandemic

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has launched an investigation into reports that Indiana schools have not been complying with federal law in the provision of special education and related services, MJC partner and education attorney Tom Blessing announced on Thursday. In a strongly worded letter addressed to Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, OCR informed her that its investigation was prompted by “disturbing reports that…disabled students have been forced by local school districts into virtual learning programs that were not individualized to meet those students’ unique needs….”

According to Blessing, the letter states that OCR is “particularly troubled” that this has resulted in several parents of disabled students filing complaints with the Indiana Department of Education. Those complaints allege that disabled students were denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE) or equal access to education in violation of federal law, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “I’ve been saying that for months, so it’s nice to see that OCR is giving this the attention it deserves,” Blessing said.

“I think most people would agree that our months-long experiment with ‘virtual learning’ has been a disaster: teachers don’t really teach and students don’t learn. Meanwhile, parents are forced to serve as amateur ‘teachers’ in addition to helping their kids navigate all the accessibility and technical glitches that come with it,” Blessing said. “In theory, eLearning may sound good and some kids do fine with it, but for most of my kiddos in special education, it just doesn’t work. You can’t sit them in front of a computer and expect them to learn. And it’s basically impossible for them to get their OT, PT and speech therapy. Imagine taking a ‘virtual’ golf lesson. You can’t do it.”

Blessing said that he has represented several parents with complaints against a few school districts, but that filing individual claims has not brought about the statewide reforms that are necessary to help all students with disabilities. “Since all this started back in March, many school districts seemed to think that compliance with federal law was ‘optional.’ 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.”

According to Blessing, school districts take advantage of the reality that many 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. This results in widespread noncompliance with federal disability laws like the IDEA. “When school districts across Indiana don’t follow the law, we have a systemic problem that can’t be fixed by a small number of individual students filing complaints against a handful of local school districts. The tone of the OCR letter tells me it’s taking this seriously, so I’m hopeful that its investigation helps every child with a disability in our state.”

If you’d like a free consultation regarding your child’s rights at school, feel free to contact Tom Blessing directly at [email protected] or 317.417.0809.

To read local media coverage of this topic, click on the links below:

Indiana Department of Education reviewing complaints involving students with special needs

Complaints prompt federal investigation into special education in Indiana during pandemic

US Department of Education investigating Indiana's special education services during COVID