The United States Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) recently issued several policy guidance letters addressing important issues related to state and districtwide assessments, preschool programming, and disagreements during Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings, known under federal law as IEP team meetings.  While informal and nonbinding, these concise and digestible policy letters provide useful insight into OSERS’ interpretation of the statutes and regulations prescribing school district obligations related to mandatory assessments, preschool programming, and record keeping.

First, in Letter to Kane (Apr.18, 2018), OSERS addressed the potential obligation of school districts to provide compensatory special education and related services to students with disabilities who may or may not participate in required state or districtwide assessments.  Specifically, OSERS was asked to clarify whether school districts are obligated to provide compensatory services to make up for special education and related services missed (1) during the time a student participates in required state or districtwide assessments; and (2) when a parent withholds consent for such assessments and keeps the student home from school while the assessments are being administered.

OSERS recognized the importance of state and districtwide assessments, which are integral aspects of educational accountability systems, and which are used to measure student progress for the purposes of promotion, graduation, and access to educational services.  OSERS also highlighted the general requirement that children with disabilities be included in all state and districtwide assessments, while emphasizing that the IEP team will address the manner in which a student participates in such assessments.  A Student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) will, for example, specify whether the student will take alternate assessments, or whether the student will receive any accommodations during such assessments.

Importantly, OSERS clarified that, generally, a special education or related service missed due to participation in required scheduled assessment will not constitute a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and the school district will not be required to make up the missed service.  Additionally, for a student who is absent from school on testing days due to a parent’s choice, the school district will not be obligated to make other arrangements to make up the missed service.

In Letter to Carroll (Apr. 19, 2018), OSERS addressed whether a school district could unilaterally schedule a full school week of special education and related services for a preschool student, despite knowing from the outset the student would not regularly attend school five days per week.  The specific inquiry involved a preschool student whose IEP specified 1,500 minutes of specially designed instruction per week, divided equally between a special education class and a general education class.  During the IEP team meeting in which the IEP was developed, no particular schedule was agreed upon, but the parents informed the IEP team that the student would attend the preschool program only three days per week so as to allow for participation in other activities and services outside of the school setting.  

Because it was unlikely that the full 1,500 minutes of weekly instruction could be provided in only three school days, the school district inquired whether it could unilaterally implement a schedule after the PPT meeting that provided for less than the 1,500 minutes.  OSERS noted that an IEP must identify the specific amount of special education and related services that a student will receive so that the school district’s commitment of resources is clear.  OSERS then emphatically stated that, under the IDEA, a school district cannot unilaterally change the amount of services included in a preschool student’s IEP.  As such, if the school district wanted to revise the amount of instruction provided for in the student’s IEP, it would have to engage the parents in further discussion, even if such discussion took place outside of a PPT meeting.  If the parents and school district agreed to change the student’s IEP, the changes would also have to be memorialized in an amended IEP following appropriate amendment procedures.

The form of the district’s inquiry is somewhat puzzling, since it seems as though the district could have solved the problem by preparing a schedule of services that would comply with the requirements of the IEP, and then simply noting when the parent chose to make the student available for the services that had been scheduled, and when the student was not made available.  Nonetheless, if a district wishes to reduce the amount of services available to a student through the IEP, proper procedures need to be followed to either amend the IEP or reconvene the meeting and have further discussions with the parent.

Finally, In Letter to Zirkel (Apr. 19, 2018), OSERS addressed the status of dissenting opinions from IEP team members.  Specifically, OSERS was asked whether it is permissible for a teacher or other district member of the IEP team to enter a dissenting opinion on a student’s IEP or elsewhere in the student’s record.  An example was provided involving a teacher who objects to the placement of a student in his or her classed based on behavioral and/or academic issues, while the PPT ultimately determines that placement in the teacher’s class is appropriate.

OSERS noted that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specifically address the issue of disagreements among school team members during IEP team meetings, except in the context of students suspected of having specific learning disabilities.  Specifically, 34 C.F.R. § 300.311(b) requires a team member who disagrees with an evaluator’s conclusions regarding a student’s potential learning disability to submit a separate statement reflecting his or her own conclusions.  As previously articulated in Letter to Anonymous (Oct. 29, 1996), however, an IEP team is not responsible for implementing the recommendation of an individual team member.

Due to the lack of a definitive authority on the subject, OSERS deferred to state and local educational agencies, which may maintain policies and procedures regarding the documentation of dissenting opinions among school team members during IEP team meetings.  Neither the Connecticut General Statues, the implementing Regulations, nor any other State authority addresses the extent to which such dissenting opinions must be documented in a student’s IEP or elsewhere.  As such, district personnel should determine whether their board of education maintains any relevant policies or procedures regarding disagreements during PPT meetings.  Importantly, however, during certain PPT meetings, such as manifestation determination meetings, the dissenting opinions of team members regarding issues such as whether a student’s behavior constituted a manifestation of his or her disability should be carefully documented in the worksheets memorializing the PPT’s ultimate decisions and recommendations. 

The full texts of the OSERS policy guidance letters, as well as additional OSERS resources, are available via the following web link:

https://sites.ed.gov/idea/policy-guidance/ 

As previously stated, policy guidance letters issued by federal and state agencies and their subdivisions, including the OSERS letters discussed herein, are informal, nonbinding, nonbinding, and do not establish a policy or rule that would apply in all circumstances.  School district administrators should consult with legal counsel as needed to resolve matters related to special education, including but not limited to state and districtwide assessments, disagreements during PPT meetings, and preschool programming.

Attorneys at Berchem Moses PC are available to consult school districts regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut.  For further information, please contact Attorney

The Connecticut State Board of Education (State Board) adopted Standards for Educational Opportunities for Students Who Have been Expelled (Standards) on January 3, 2018. The State Board acted in response to P.A. 17-200, An Act Concerning Education Mandate Relief, containing a directive that the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) adopt such standards. The Standards delineate two permissible options for school districts for the provision of alternative education to expelled students: 1) to educate an eligible expelled student in an alternative educational program operated by the expelling district if placement in such a program is deemed appropriate as adjudged under the CSDE Standards or 2) to provide an eligible expelled student with a different educational opportunity as long as it meets the CSDE Standards.

The Standards clarify that school districts may permissibly educate an expelled student through an alternative education program offered by another local educational agency or operator. Whether a district elects to provide an expelled student with an AEO in an alternate education program or to provide a different alternative educational opportunity, the Standards require that school districts develop an individualized learning plan for each expelled student. Such learning plans must address specified areas including, but not limited to, academic and behavioral goals, bench marks for progress and monitoring of progress.

While acknowledging that many Connecticut school districts offer appropriate educational programming for expelled students, the CSDE expresses an expectation that districts would in most instances determine that enrollment in its own alternative educational program or that operated by another LEA or provider would be the most appropriate option.  The CSDE recognizes that in unusual circumstances such placement may not be suitable or available.

The Standards emphasize the importance of providing high quality education to expelled students and require that individualized assessment be conducted. The Standards set specific required action to be taken by districts in five areas: student placement, creation of an individualized learning plan, review of placement, progress monitoring, and transitional planning. The Standards can be reviewed in entirety here:

http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/board/boardmaterials010318/Standards_for_Alternative_Educational_Opportunities_for_Students_Who_Have_Been_Expelled.pdf

Notably, the Standards contain no directive for a minimally required number of seat hours for instruction for expelled students. General alternative education programs are subject to state law requirements for the number of required seat hours and school days. However, the omission in the Standards is offset by the CSDE’s expressed preference that districts provide expelled students with an alternative educational opportunity that closely mirrors the full time educational environment from which the expelled student was removed.

The CSDE has expressed interest in developing best practices for reducing discipline, including expulsions, in improving alternative schools and programs, along with improving educational outcomes for expelled students.  Future examination promises possible further change to or clarification of Connecticut’s existing law and formal guidance in this area.

For the present, school districts are encouraged to review current practices, procedures and policies related to student expulsions, and in particular, those related to the offering or provision of alternative educational opportunities to expelled students to ensure compliance with the latest revisions to C.G. S. 10-233d, Connecticut’s expulsion statute, and with the newly adopted CSDE Standards for the provision of alternative education to expelled students

On Wednesday, January 17, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated decision regarding the adequacy of education funding from the State.  In Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Inc. v. Rell, 2018 WL 472325 (2018), the court ruled that the State met its obligation to provide “minimally adequate” funding to school districts across Connecticut, and did not deny equal protection to students from the neediest districts.  In so ruling, the State’s highest court partially reversed Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s September 2016 decision, which held that Connecticut is “defaulting on its constitutional duty to provide adequate public school opportunities because it has no rational, substantial, and verifiable plan to distribute money for education aid.”  The decision is the culmination of more than twelve (12) years of litigation dating back to 2005, when CCJEF and a group of representative families first filed suit alleging that inadequate funding violated students’ state constitutional rights to “suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities” and equal protection under the law.  The plaintiffs largely represented minority families and others residing in school districts long perceived as underfunded by the combination of State spending and local property taxes.  The decision is particularly impactful as Connecticut continues to reel from a deficit of more than $200 million, while also struggling to create and implement an education funding scheme that is both more equitable and predictable to local and regional school districts. Continue Reading State Supreme Court Rules That Education Funding Meets Minimum Adequacy Standard; No Equal Protection Violation Against Students from Neediest School Districts

Buried in the nearly 900 page document which is the biennial budget legislation are two sentences that impose a new requirement on boards of education.  Specifically, Section 157 of Public Act 17-2 from the June Special Session provides:

Sec. 157.  (NEW)(Effective from passage) Any local board of education shall file forthwith a signed copy of any contract for administrative personnel with the town clerk, which town clerk shall post a copy of any such contract on the town’s Internet web site.  Any regional board of education shall file a copy of any such contract with the town clerk in each member town, which town clerk shall post a copy of any such contract on the town’s Internet web site. Continue Reading Budget Legislation Requires That “Administrative” Contracts Be Provided To And Posted By The Town Clerk

On August 11, 2017, the State of Connecticut Supreme Court delivered its decision in Munn v. Hotchkiss School, SC 19525 (Conn. 2017), holding that the state’s public policy does not preclude imposing a duty on a school to warn about or protect students against the risk of a serious insect-borne disease when organizing a trip abroad.  The decision sets an important precedent regarding the extent to which a school may be held liable for injuries sustained by students during school-sponsored programs and activities.  Local and regional boards of education, as well as private schools and other educational institutions, are strongly advised to scrutinize their programs and activities in light of the Munn decision. Continue Reading State Supreme Court Holds that Private School had Duty to Warn and Protect Students Against Risk of Serious Insect-Borne Disease When Organizing Trip Abroad

Beginning August 10, 2017, the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 34 C.F.R. Part 104, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“the IDEA”), 34 C.F.R. Part 300, will be revised to change references to “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.”  The revisions are being made pursuant to Public Law 111-256, better known as Rosa’s Law.  Originally enacted in October 2010, Rosa’s Law is named for Rosa Marcellino, a child with Down Syndrome whose family advocated for more accurate and progressive terminology in legislation affecting individuals with disabilities.  The Marcellino family’s efforts are part of a larger trend toward replacing outdated or pejorative legal terms with language that acknowledges the dignity and capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Continue Reading Updated Federal Regulations: Rosa’s Law Changes Section 504 and IDEA References from “Mental Retardation” to “Intellectual Disability”

It is illegal for public entities to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.  No one disputes this premise.  But did you know that if your website does not meet certain standards of accessibility you could be the subject of a complaint and investigation by OCR?

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities letting them know their websites and on-line portals need to be accessible to all students.  In May of 2011 that was extended to elementary and secondary institutions as well.  Since then OCR has been monitoring website accessibility through its power to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the ADA. Continue Reading Is Your Website Handicap Accessible?

Typically this time of year school district administrators ponder whether to “non-renew” non-tenured teachers in response to budget uncertainty, as opposed to waiting for the fiscal picture to become clear and possibly laying off teachers at a later time.  Given the state budget crisis, and unprecedented major cuts in funding on the table, the uncertainty is worse this year than ever before.  This has caused even superintendents and other administrators who previously were not inclined to non-renew teachers for economic reasons, to give serious consideration to doing so.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of non-renewal relative to laying off non-tenured teachers?  If a teacher is non-renewed for economic reasons pursuant to C.G.S. Section 10-151(c), he/she has no recall rights and no right to a hearing before the Board of Education.  Moreover, if after the budget is settled the district decides to continue the employment of some but not all non-renewed teachers, it can pick and choose to whom it decides to offer reinstatement, thereby, enabling it to select the best and brightest. Continue Reading The May 1st Dilemma: Non-Renewal vs. Layoff

Over the past few weeks, there have been several cyberattacks on Connecticut municipalities and boards of education.  On the municipal side, internet thieves have intercepted wire transfer instructions in two Connecticut municipalities resulting in the theft of significant sums.

Most recently, an outside party accessed a Superintendent’s email and requested W-2 information for the school district’s employees.  While local police, IRS and FBI are investigating the matter, it is believed this information was stolen with the intent of filing false tax returns for the affected employees. Continue Reading Internet Thieves Are Targeting Municipalities and Boards of Education

March 6, 2017 marks a significant development in the case of Gloucester v. G.G., the closely followed and highly publicized Virginia transgender student bathroom case. The Gloucester case involves a local school board policy that effectively denies a transgender male high school student use of his school’s male bathroom and, in turn, the student’s claim of unequal treatment and discrimination by the board based upon sex under Title IX. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari back in October 2016 certifying only two issues for its consideration: 1) whether deference should extend to an unpublished letter by the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which does not carry the weight of law and was adopted in the context of the dispute at hand, indicating that Title IX applies to transgender identity, and 2) without deference to the agency, should the Department’s specific interpretation of Title IX be given effect. The United States Supreme Court will not hear the Gloucester case this month as scheduled. The Court vacated the ruling below and remanded the case back to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration of the issues, presumably to include whether Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex extends to gender identity. The Court takes such action notwithstanding requests from both parties that the case proceeds as scheduled and be heard this term. Continue Reading The United States Supreme Court Sends Virginia Transgender Bathroom Case Back to the 4th Circuit