Recently, an Oregon judge ordered the Hood River County School District (HRCSD) to compensate a former special education student’s family for a lost year of school. Judicial findings indicated the student was denied Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), a mandate under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Oregon school districts, administrators and school personnel are misinterpreting educational laws and causing harm. I’m an associate professor of kinesiology who studies children with disabilities, and I’m all too familiar with misinterpretations of special education law leading to students’ educational inequity.
It’s not just enough to have a policy in place; all school personnel are responsible for educating all students.
Guaranteeing student access to equitable education is at the heart of special education services. In 2019, the state of Oregon expanded special education services for students diagnosed with a developmental delay until 3rd grade instead of the previous cut-off at age 5. I was one of the authors who examined the educational trajectory of these young children and felt the expansion of services signified the state’s strong commitment to students with disabilities.
IDEA covers direct services, like classroom instruction and physical education. It also pertains to related services, like physical, occupational and speech therapy. Special education students in Polk and Marion counties, as well as others across the state, were the first to return in person to the classroom in the 20/21 academic year.
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As the recent case against HRCSD pinpoints, students with disabilities do not always receive the educational service they’re guaranteed.
In 2019, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the state for this reason. The lawsuit was brought after students with disabilities were forced to leave school before regular dismissal because their school wasn’t equipped to manage aspects of their disability. While a tentative agreement in the class-action lawsuit was reached, the resumption of in-person learning adds new confusion to some poor interpretations of public law.
IDEA indicates education in the student’s least restrictive environment (LRE). This aspect of the law identifies locations ranging from the students’ general classroom to their local hospital with the appropriate supplementary aids and services — like instructional assistants. The abrupt response to the COVID-19 pandemic added substantial confusion, but guidance on how to manage LRE virtually was provided by experts ahead of students returning in-person to school.
As COVID-19 approaches endemic, it’s time to refine the best educational practices for students with disabilities and over-invest in special education.
When school personnel make decisions such as sending students home before regular dismissal, substituting incorrect classes on the student’s individualized education program (IEP), and withholding the necessary aids and services in all educational environments — it is a blatant misinterpretation of public law.
All school personnel have a responsibility to ensure equal access to education for students with disabilities.
As a state committed to inclusion, it’s time to prioritize special education services and provide all students with the services they need. Training all school personnel on special education laws, and inclusive school practices are needed to ensure action.
Megan MacDonald, Ph.D., is an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University and the IMPACT for Life Faculty Scholar. She is also the director of the early childhood research core at the university’s Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families. You may reach her at Megan.MacDonald@oregonstate.edu
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