A Concerning Trend: Massachusetts Districts Asking Parents to Waive Special Education Rights

In a recently published article, the Boston Globe reports that during this past spring, many school districts across the state asked parents to forgo their children’s special education rights by signing waivers releasing the districts from important special education obligations. These waivers have included releasing districts from providing IEP-related services and programming, conducting special education assessments, and issuing IEPs within state and federal timelines. That districts would request such waivers is concerning enough, in light of clear federal and state guidance that districts must adhere to these obligations despite the COVID-19 crisis. Further concerning is how districts have presented these waivers. Attorneys, parents, and advocates have stated that districts have portrayed the signing of these waivers as a necessary condition for parents to get IEP Team meetings scheduled or for certain services to continue. As a result, many less informed or less assertive parents consented to the waivers, misled by the districts to believe that they had no choice but to do so if they wanted their children to receive assessments, services, or meetings to which the families were in fact already entitled.

As discussed in our May 5, 2020 blog post, the U.S. Department of Education (“USDOE”) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) have explicitly stated that, despite COVID-19-related issues, school districts must continue providing their students with special education services and programming and that special education timelines (including timelines for completion of assessments, convening Team meetings, and issuing IEPs) must be followed. On a May 1, 2020 Zoom call with the state’s special education directors, Massachusetts’ State Director of Special Education, Russell Johnston, commented that waivers of these obligations “aren’t going to hold up.” On May 21, 2020, DESE issued guidance, noting that school districts cannot ask for such waivers.

The Globe reports that a Massachusetts special education activist group, SPEDWatch, has filed complaints against twenty-five school districts, with seventeen of them accused of pushing these waivers on parents. Eleven have been found noncompliant and reprimanded by DESE; the other seven remain under investigation. The noncompliant districts have been required to notify parents that the waivers that the parents previously signed are void. However, parents and their attorneys remained concerned that other districts are continuing these practices, or are forgoing the waiver but ignoring special education timelines.

Guidance from USDOE and DESE strongly suggests that previously signed waivers are invalid. As discussed above, it is clear that districts must continue providing special education students with a free appropriate public education and follow mandated special education timelines. Parents should be mindful of districts presenting these waivers or using COVID-19-related issues as justification for failing to provide special education services and programming and/or failing to timely hold IEP Team meetings, conduct evaluations, and issue IEPs. Parents who have previously signed such waivers should not wait for their districts to retract them, but should consider notifying the district in writing that they have learned that the waiver is illegal and are therefore withdrawing their previous consent to excuse the district from its obligations. (As always, parents are advised to consult an experienced special education attorney or advocate about their child’s particular situation.)

Nathan Y. Sullivan is an associate in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

Uncharted Territory: What Will School Look Like for Special Education Students in the Summer and Fall of 2020?

As most Massachusetts residents know, on March 15, 2020 Governor Charlie Baker ordered all public and private schools in the Commonwealth to cease in-person instruction through April 6, 2020.  That restriction was later extended through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) directed school districts to provide students (including special education students) with remote instruction during that time.  With the 2019-2020 school year drawing to a close, DESE been considering summer school programs and looking toward the reopening of school in the fall.  DESE has issued the following guidance on those subjects:

All four documents may be found at http://www.doe.mass.edu/covid19/on-desktop.html. Continue reading

BSEA Issues New Standing Orders Addressing COVID-19-Related Issues

The Bureau of Special Education Appeals (“BSEA”), the state’s administrative body that handles special education cases, has recently issued Standing Orders to address the challenges presented by COVID-19. In order to comply with federal and state mandates requiring that special education timelines be maintained during this global pandemic, the BSEA has ordered that it will continue to hold resolution proceedings (which include Due Process Hearings). In light of the state’s closure and re-opening plans, these resolution proceedings shall be done remotely or virtually and not in-person until further notice. Any requests for a change in date of the resolution proceedings, location of the proceedings, and/or mediums from which to conduct these proceedings must be made to the individual Hearing Officer assigned to the case.

The BSEA’s new Standing Orders also allow for Hearing Officers and Mediators to accept submissions of correspondence or documents through email, in addition to paper (such as fax or mail), so long as all parties are copied on the electronic correspondence. Hearing Requests cannot be submitted via email and must still be submitted via mail, fax, or hand-delivery.

COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on many parts of our lives, and it has also disrupted administrative proceedings for special education cases in Massachusetts, which in the past were exclusively conducted in-person. These new Standing Orders provide a necessary and welcome alternative to in-person resolution proceedings during this time. The BSEA’s Standing Orders can be found here: https://www.mass.gov/orgs/bureau-of-special-education-appeals.

Special Education Today is a publication of the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

Reversing a FAPE Freefall? U.S. DOE Upholds Students’ Rights to Special Education During Coronavirus Crisis

On March 21, 2020, the United States Department of Education (“USDOE”), through its Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) and Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (“OSERS”), issued a Supplemental Fact Sheet, “Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities.”  This guidance provides a necessary corrective to earlier guidance issued by USDOE on March 12, 2020 and by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) on March 17, 2020. Continue reading

Issues in Special Education that Candidates Should Address

We are posting a link here to an article written by Bob Crabtree, of counsel with KC&S, regarding some of the critical issues surrounding special education and disability rights that candidates running for legislative and executive offices should address.  Though IDEA is a federal law, states can establish increased requirements for special education and these are therefore issues to discuss with candidates for state office as well.  The issues discussed in the article include: inadequate special education funding; the weakening of required standards governing IEPs; judicial decisions about recovery of attorneys’ fees and related costs; and the burden of proof in special education proceedings. 

Special Education Today is a publication of the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

New First Circuit Opinion Elucidates Exhaustion Requirement for School-Related Claims Under Sections 504 and 1983

The First Circuit has recently clarified the exhaustion requirements for school-related Section 504 and Section 1983 claims in light of Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs., 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017).  In Doucette v. Georgetown Public Schools, #18-1160 (1st Cir. Aug. 26, 2019), a divided panel reversed a District Court decision that dismissed parents’ Section 504 and Section 1983 claims for failure to exhaust IDEA’s administrative process. Continue reading

Providing Notice of a Unilateral Placement

Pursuant to both state and federal law, students with special needs are entitled to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).  If parents are dissatisfied with the appropriateness of the school district’s programming, parents have the right to place a student in a private school program at their own expense and seek reimbursement from the district.  This is called making a “unilateral placement.”  Whether or not a lawsuit seeking reimbursement will ultimately be successful depends on a number of complex factors that are beyond the scope of this post, but it is important to provide adequate notice to the school district of a student’s new placement. Continue reading

House 518 Would Require Transportation and Increased Funding for Recovery High Schools – a Proven Resource in a Troubled Time

Readers may recall a number of posts we have entered over the past few years regarding Recovery High Schools. Massachusetts currently has five such high schools – in Boston, Brockton, Beverly, Worcester and Springfield – and they have each proven to be an excellent support for high school age students who are struggling to disengage from drug and/or alcohol dependence/abuse. A Recovery High School’s ability to provide a solid high school education along with appropriate services and supports to such students, in the company of peers who are struggling with the same issues, is critical to the success of this resource. The alternative – returning to the student’s home high school – is all too often disastrous, as a student’s fragile beginning toward recovery can so easily be crushed by a school district’s lack of supports while a user subculture of peers eagerly draws the student back into its mix. Continue reading

A New First Circuit Case: C.D. v. Natick Public School District

In a recent decision, C.D. v. Natick Pub. Sch. Dist., No. 18-1794 (1st Cir. May 22, 2019), the First Circuit Court of Appeals grappled with the legal standards at the heart of most special education disputes – namely, the entitlement of a student with special needs to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE).  The First Circuit’s decision followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S. Ct. 988 (2017), which, for the first time since 1982, squarely considered the contours of a FAPE.  For an in-depth discussion about Endrew F., please see our previous post here. Continue reading

45 Years Old – Are the Purposes of Chapter 766 Being Achieved?

September 2019 will be the 45th anniversary of the effective date of the special education reform act known as “Chapter 766.” (Although Chapter 766 was adopted in 1972, its full implementation was delayed for two years to allow educators and agencies time to prepare.)

Five years ago we checked in with readers to invite their comments on whether the stated purposes of Chapter 766 were being met.  Comments from some of the advocates and political leaders who were behind the legislation in 1972 were eloquent, insightful and heartfelt. They included, for example, the following from Martha Ziegler, a great civil rights leader whose work in 1972 organizing the widely disparate interest groups of the world of disability advocacy into a cohesive lobbying force was a key factor in the success of the movement, as was her later work founding and presiding over the Federation for Children With Special Needs. Continue reading