The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Indiana for how it has handled special education during the pandemic.
The federal department said in a letter sent to the state last week it's "troubled" by reports of parents filing multiple complaints that their students have been forced into virtual learning plans that don't address their unique needs.
Kim Dodson is CEO of the Arc of Indiana, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. She says special education services have been spotty during the pandemic, with some schools navigating and addressing student needs better than others.
"I think it's been hit and miss – I think that there, again, have been some schools who have figured things out, other schools who haven't," she said.
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Dodson says schools have pointed to a lack of staff or other resources as reasons they have been unable to provide students their legally-obligated services as they navigate challenges caused and exasperated by COVID-19.
But Dodson says the investigation is another opportunity for the state to review how it handles special education service complaints. A panel chaired by State Board of Education member Byron Ernest recommended changes to the process in 2019, but Dodson says nothing has happened as a result of the panel's work so far.
She says state rulings in formal complaints don't usually require schools to take action.
"There also seems to be a large majority of complaints that are found in favor of the schools rather than in favor of the students," she said.
The panel, of which Dodson was a member, recommended the state provide additional funding and training to support hearing officers who handle formal education service complaints, in addition to developing a more comprehensive database and resource network for those officers. The group also recommended exploring the possibility of creating an appeals process for education complaint decisions, and providing funding to support legal advocates who could provide assistance to families earlier in the education dispute process.
In a statement, new state Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said she's requested a full briefing on complaints filed during the pandemic, and is committed to addressing the concerns.