The federal government recently dismissed an investigation into the Indiana Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this year opened an investigation citing “disturbing reports” from parents of students with disabilities who said their children were forced into “one size fits all” remote learning programs.
Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment with the National Disability Rights Network, said the federal inquiry into IDOE is unique. Hager said he knows of no other instance in which the U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into a state department of education over its handling of special education complaints.
“So, what this case says is there were complaints to the [Indiana] education agency, that these school districts were taking this one size fits all approach, and the [Indiana] education agency didn’t do anything about it,” he said.
Hager said his organization has heard from families across the country that students with disabilities did not receive the individualized services they needed during the pandemic.
He said he was excited about the investigation and hopes it will lead to similar investigations in other states across the country. However, Hager said he’s disappointed that the federal government dismissed its inquiry.
Adele Rapport, regional director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, wrote in a letter to Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner dated June 25 that the agency “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 otherwise violating federal law.
A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education, Holly Lawson, declined to comment on the dismissal. In a statement released in January after the investigation was announced, Jenner pledged to provide support to schools to meet the needs of special education students, and that she’s “committed to working with my local, state and federal colleagues to both understand and address these concerns.”
Hager said he doesn’t understand why the U.S. DOE would initiate an investigation if it had no information that the state was violating federal law.
“It's really very curious to me of what it means. So, I think it's possible that they never did an investigation… I’m not saying that's what happened. But that's how I'm reading it,” Hager said.
Schools are required by federal law to provide individualized learning programs to students with disabilities.
Hager said concerns that state departments of education aren’t doing enough to ensure school districts comply with federal laws are not unique to Indiana. He said state education agencies “have a job to oversee and monitor what's happening in the school districts. And we don't feel that they're doing it as well as they should be doing.”
“Because we do see, even pre-COVID — and I'm sure we'll see it post-COVID — that students with disabilities are not getting the services that they need. They're not making educational progress. They're being suspended. They're being restrained or secluded. They're being referred to the police, or the juvenile justice [system]... And the state is not doing enough to monitor and enforce the federal laws.”
More than 166,000 students qualified for special education services in Indiana during the 2020-21 school year.