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

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

Providing an IEP May Not Suffice if a District Fails in Its Child Find Obligation

Suppose a child exhibits troubling behaviors and/or difficulties learning basic skills in kindergarten or another early grade. Suppose further that, despite the child’s problematic performance, no teacher or other public school employee recommends that the child be evaluated. Perhaps that child passes through first and part of second grade with similar problems until finally a referral is made, an evaluation completed, and an IEP developed. Problem solved? Not entirely. The question remains whether the district should have taken these steps much earlier and whether any remedy is available to make up for the lost time and services.

The District of Columbia Circuit recently held that, although a school district’s provision of an IEP may satisfy the district’s obligations now and for the immediate future, parents may still be entitled to compensatory education for the months or years when their child was not yet on an IEP or identified as eligible for special education. Boose v. District of Columbia, 786 F.3d 1054 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Continue reading

Federal Guidance Regarding Speech-Language Services for Students with Autism

The Office of Special Education Programs of the United States Department of Education (“OSEP”) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” letter on July 6, 2015 regarding speech-language services and evaluations for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Continue reading

Parents are awarded an out of district placement after proving that the district’s program for a child with Autism and Intellectual Disability does not provide FAPE

A Brookline family has just prevailed in a decision issued by the BSEA’s newest hearing officer, Amy Reichbach, finding that the district’s program did not provide a FAPE and ordering Brookline to place the student at the RCS Learning Center in Natick.  In Re: Jacqueline, BSEA #1408578.  Attorney Dan Heffernan of our firm represented the family in this close, complex, and hard-fought case.  The decision highlights many of the types of issues that frequently arise where districts struggle to address the severe and multifaceted needs of children who require intense, systematic, consistent, and comprehensive services and need to be with peers who will provide for mutual learning and progress.  Districts do their best to meet such needs in most cases, but the lack of a sufficient cohort of students with comparable needs and the incompatibility of the normal structure of a regular school setting – generally open and flexible, expecting growing independence from all students – often make it difficult for a severely involved child to make meaningful progress.  Continue reading

Work Product Protection: Fishing For Parent Consultants’ Files at the BSEA Should Be Off Limits

Some school districts have increasingly been seeking production of parent consultants’ (non-lawyer advocates’) files in the discovery process at the BSEA. We believe that most documents generated by parent consultants should be shielded from disclosure as irrelevant and/or as subject to the doctrine of “work product.” We are posting here an excerpt from a comment that we recently published in the Massachusetts Special Education Reporter (“MSER”) in which we took the occasion to highlight the need to protect consultants’ work product. Parents’ access to consultants who can help them navigate the complexities of special education process is essential, we think, to the integrity and effectiveness of the system; that access should not be chilled by concerns over the possibility of school districts and their attorneys picking through their consultants’ files if litigation ensues. (Our full commentary on BSEA decisions and rulings in the first quarter of 2015 is published at 21 MSER C-1 and may be read on our firm’s website. Continue reading

Discovery of Information about Proposed Peers at the BSEA: A Practice Note

Why proposed peer group information is essential in BSEA proceedings

The capacity of a school district’s program to meet the needs of a student with a disability often depends heavily on the learning, behavioral, and social communication needs of the peers with whom the district proposes to group the student.   An inappropriate classroom cohort can significantly undermine a student’s ability to make effective progress.  For example, suppose that a child of average intelligence who has severe dyslexia requires placement in small classes where all core subjects are taught with a specialized language-based methodology.  Placing that student in a classroom with students who have different disabilities (such as emotional or intellectual impairments) that require different methodologies would not be appropriate.  Continue reading

New DESE Advisory: Charting a Course for Charter School Students Who May Need an Out-of-District Program

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”) recently released an advisory concerning the responsibilities of charter schools to special education students. Although charter schools have been a feature of the Massachusetts school landscape for over twenty years, there are still misunderstandings about charter schools’ obligations to their students who require special education.  The DESE advisory addresses some of these issues. It focuses on a Massachusetts special education regulation found at 603 CMR 28.10(6)(a), which covers the responsibilities of the charter school and the student’s public school district (“district of residence”) in the event that a student with special needs may need to leave the charter school in order to obtain an appropriate education.  (This regulation also covers special education students who attend vocational schools, Commonwealth of Massachusetts virtual schools, and schools attended through the METCO program.  However, the advisory targets charter schools specifically.) Continue reading