- The Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to increase efforts to provide the individualized special education services students missed during pandemic-related school closures after a U.S. Department of Education investigation found the district inappropriately limited those services, according to an Ed Department announcement.
- The nation's second largest school system will also have individualized education program and Section 504 teams for each student determine if students got services during remote learning and whether make-up services, known as compensatory education services, are needed.
- Special education officials across the nation said they have been working with parents to review whether individualized compensatory services are needed. However, some disability rights advocates said the outreach hasn't been broad enough and that staff shortages are making it difficult to even address students' current needs.
A similar Ed Department Office for Civil Rights investigation of the Indiana Department of Education was dismissed in June 2021 because of insufficient information to suggest Indiana had discriminated against students with disabilities. OCR investigations into Fairfax Public Schools and Seattle Public Schools seem to be ongoing, according to an OCR database of pending cases.
OCR investigations into the four school systems were announced in January 2021, when the pandemic meant less than half of K-12 students were learning in person. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Education Department sent guidance that schools were to continue meeting obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide individualized special education services — even if those services were online.
"Today's resolution will ensure that the more than 66,000 Los Angeles Unified students with disabilities will receive the equal access to education to which federal civil rights law entitles them, including compensatory education for any services the district did not provide during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for Civil Rights.
Some students with disabilities, especially those with intensive needs, struggled to access supports or engage in remote learning. Meanwhile, school systems tried to navigate how to translate in-person therapies and services into online offerings.
Compensatory services are additional services that can be offered as a nonlegal remedy to make up for missed or delayed evaluations or services because of pandemic-induced school closures or for other reasons.
Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said in a statement that the findings of violations in LAUSD should serve as a warning for other school systems to do "what is right and just by their students and families."
The federal government does not collect information about compensatory services that are offered or implemented. A survey by COPAA found only 25% of parents said they were informed by the school district about the opportunity for compensatory services. The survey, conducted October-November 2021, included 254 responses from 36 states and more than 200 school districts.
Some states, such as Texas, have set guidance or requirements around determinations for compensatory services during the pandemic.
But both special education officials and disability rights advocates are concerned severe shortages of special education personnel — including teachers, related service providers, psychologists and others — are hampering districts’ abilities to meet all the requirements in students' IEPs.
“The workforce issues are impacting our clients, maybe more than anything else,” Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney at Disability Rights Texas, told K-12 Dive earlier this month. “I have brought it up to some families who were like, ‘What do you mean compensatory? I can’t even get what we’re supposed to get now, much less try to compensate for last year.’"