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Virginia State Board of Ed member: SPED 'fundamentally broken'

Wendy Little says she has been fighting for over a year to get Chesterfield County Public Schools to approve an Individualized Education Program – or IEP – for her 15-year-old son with autism, while facing constant pushback from school staff.

The school system has proposed cutting needed services to his education, placing him at the wrong school and reducing service hours with a special education teacher without so much as a conversation, Little said. The disagreement over this IEP document resulted in Little’s son, Eryn, being unenrolled for the entire 2022 school year with nowhere else to go.

“Going a whole year without education, he’s become extremely reclusive,” Little said. “I can barely get him to leave the house for anything and there’s been a lot of psychological damage in addition to educational damage.”

Parents and advocates have faulted Virginia's system of teaching special education for years - through multiple governors' administrations - asserting that when parents buck local school divisions' plans for their children's education, parents rarely prevail. Parents' concerns have sparked civil suits, federal scrutiny and a 2020 state watchdog agency's report that found the state education department does not adequately meet the needs of students with disabilities.
At a June meeting of the Virginia State Board of Education, board member Bill Hansen called the special education system “fundamentally broken.”

Chesterfield County Public Schools did not respond to questions for this story. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons, who assumed the post in April, was not available for an interview at the time of publication and the state Department of Education declined to comment.

Little is one of many Virginia parents who say they have had trouble meeting the educational needs of their special needs children in public schools.

In Northern Virginia, a group of parents filed a federal complaint against Fairfax County Public Schools and the VDOE alleging that the state oversees a “systemically defective” system designed to “obstruct, delay and ultimately prevent” families with disabled children from getting educational rights guaranteed by law….

If parents call into question services offered for their child, they can file a complaint and go before a judge. The due-process hearing is where the families and the school systems present their sides in a formal legal setting.

Data the plaintiffs acquired in that suit found that between 2010 and 2021 due-process hearing officers rarely sided in favor of parents. Only 25 of 1,391 cases, 1.8%, went in favor of parents.

A separate complaint filed by a consortium of Virginia parents alleges that the Virginia Department of Education discriminated against students with special needs….

Michigan is the only other state that the U.S. Department of Education is investigating regarding whether during the pandemic it denied disabled students the services to which they are entitled to under federal law. The Office for Civil Rights had investigated Indiana, but dropped the case in 2021 saying there was no proof.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education threatened to withhold funding for Virginia's special education programs unless it came into compliance, saying that the commonwealth’s education department was out of compliance for a number of years.

Two years behind

Eryn Little lives with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Emotional Disability and Physical Health Impairment. Little said her son’s disabilities are not visually apparent outside of a slight lack of eye contact. She said his conditions, however, render him prone to lashing out verbally or occasional meltdowns when he is triggered by small stimulus in his environment.

She’s spoken at school board and board of supervisors meetings, trying to call attention to her son’s situation. Little says she feels forgotten and overlooked when it comes to getting her son an effective Individualized Education Program….

Little says the most significant breakdown in her conversations with the Chesterfield school division was that the IEP team continually refused to add an aide to her son’s list of needs. The nature of his compounding disabilities means that he needs assistance with daily hygienic activities – necessitating an aide every single day….

The state Department of Education is operating under its third leader since the pandemic began, when James Lane was the state superintendent. He left with the governorship transition. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who began his tenure in January 2022, appointed Jillian Balow to the post. She suddenly resigned just 14 months into her tenure after the state education department came under fire for several high-profile errors. Youngkin then appointed Coons, who had served as chief academic officer of the Tennessee Department of Education.

According to the 2020 report by the Virginia legislature's state watchdog agency, after its researchers reviewed a sample of about 100 complaints, the report concluded the state Department of Education does not ensure that problems are resolved or that noncompliance is corrected.

When parents file complaints alleging that a school has failed to provide appropriate services, the corrections that are required by federal law happen, the report said. Instead, the VDOE usually instructs the district to hold another IEP meeting with the parent, the report found….


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