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Oregon: Disabled students denied full days of school: report

July 7, 2022, The Oregonian: Hundreds of Oregon’s disabled students are illegally denied full school days, new report finds
Dozens of school districts across Oregon continue to deny some students with disabilities their right to full school days as a means to deal with behavioral challenges and classroom disruptions, and the state Department of Education is shirking its responsibility to monitor and correct those denials, a new expert report has found. Students with disabilities including autism, emotional disturbance and communication impairment were given as few as 10 or even five hours of instruction per week, despite a longstanding federal law requiring schools to offer such students access to the same sort of free public education as their non-disabled peers and with the least possible restrictions, the report says.
The report, written by a consortium of special education experts, documents that Oregon schools often give students with significant behavior issues reduced instruction time rather than greater attention and the individualized education they need to succeed. The experts were chosen by state officials and advocates for children with disabilities and paid by the Oregon Department of Education.

More than 1,000 students statewide have been consigned to shortened school days, with at least 1,029 on shortened school days in 2018-19 alone, the consortium found. Roughly three-fourths of districts reported they used the technique on at least one student between 2017 and 2020, with Eugene, Medford and Springfield using it on the most students during that time period, their report said….

In 2019, Disability Rights Oregon and other groups filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Education on behalf of four school children with significant disabilities and asked the judge to declare it a class-action suit on behalf of all such children. The lawsuit claimed school districts statewide had a pattern of unfairly removing students from classrooms due to behavior stemming from a disability, thus violating both state and federal law.

School districts, staffed with trained experts such as special education teachers and school psychologists, should instead monitor such students for signs they are about to misbehave and help children find better ways to cope with the limits, stresses and special needs their disabilities create, the advocates argue.

The lawsuit intended to force the state to play a larger role in enforcing a law passed by the Legislature in 2017 which guarantees all students access to full school days except in narrow and short-term circumstances.

The new report by the consortium, published last week, found that many school districts are ignoring that law and that the Oregon Education Department has done little to gather the appropriate data and provide oversight to districts. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the department moved to have the case dismissed, claiming three of the four plaintiffs were no longer being subjected to shortened school days. The department also argued that it lobbied the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 263 in 2017, which barred shortened school days in most cases.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing out that school districts had broken that rule in all four plaintiff’s cases and in others since 2017. Aiken also noted that the Oregon Education Department wasn’t systemically looking to fix the illegal harms to children.

In February 2021, Aiken approved the case’s class-action status, meaning the lawsuit would likely affect the hundreds of disabled students in the state facing similar situations. The case is now headed to settlement negotiations that are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks, according to court records.

Tom Stenson, deputy legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, said the group believes the report from the neutral fact finder “speaks for itself” in providing evidence for their case, which the group and its partners are now attempting to resolve through negotiations with the state.

State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, was a chief sponsor of the 2017 bill which barred shortened school days and set up a strict process to allow districts to use them in narrow instances.

She said she recently learned the Oregon Department of Education lacks the statutory authority to force districts to follow the law, and said that this new report highlighted some other key problems….

Gelser Blouin described many of the interactions highlighted in the report between the fact finders and school district officials as shocking to moral principles.

The report details “obfuscation, hostility and silence the consultant was met with by districts,” she said. She called that mistreatment “reflective of the experience students and parents have every day.”

The report found that while a majority of Oregon’s students with disabilities live in cities and large urban areas, the largest number of students placed on shortened school days live in small and mid-sized cities or towns. Most are of elementary school age.

Gaps in data were also identified as a major systemic issue. One anecdote: A school district’s records on shortened school days were kept in a notebook that went missing. Another: Special education records were stored “in the head” of the district’s head of special education, who subsequently passed away.

The report calls on the Oregon Department of Education to implement six specific recommendations, the most crucial of which is to implement clear, firm guidance to school districts on what situations in which it is appropriate to use shortened school days and the correct process to do so. It also suggests the department study and explore ways to help fill staffing shortages for special needs classrooms in rural areas, as well as boost support for student mental health services statewide.

Marc Siegel, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education, declined to comment, stating the department does not comment on pending litigation.

A class action lawsuit names four Oregon students, including then-fourth-grader Elijah, shown here in 2018, whose schools limit them to part-time education based on their disabilities. Elijah is named only by his initials in the lawsuit. Courtesy of Disability Rights Oregon


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