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U.S. Department of Education investigating Indiana’s handling of special education during pandemic

The Office of Civil Rights said it is particularly troubled by reports that parents of disabled students have filed “multiple complaints."

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into how Indiana handled special education during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a letter obtained by 13News.

In the letter dated Jan. 12 and addressed to Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, the office said it is initiating the investigation due to “disturbing reports” involving the state’s “provision of educational services to children with disabilities.”

The Office of Civil Rights said it is particularly troubled by reports that parents of disabled students have filed “multiple complaints,” alleging those students “were forced by local school districts into virtual learning programs that were not individualized to meet those students’ unique needs.”

In the letter, the Office of Civil Rights said the investigation in no way indicates that an actual violation exists.

The letter mentioned no specific complaints by name.

Jenner released the following statement on behalf of the Indiana Department of Education: 

I have asked my team for a full briefing on all complaints filed prior to my arrival in this office on Monday, January 11, and pledge to provide every available support to help our districts and schools meet the needs of Indiana’s special education students. As we enter into day four of our administration, I want to assure you I take very seriously the department’s responsibility to support our schools, students and families, especially during these unprecedented times, and I am committed to working with my local, state and federal colleagues to both understand and address these concerns.”

In August 2020, 13News reported the parents of a disabled student in Fishers filed a complaint with the Indiana Department of Education. At the time, they said virtual learning wouldn’t work for their son after trying it last spring.

“He needs one-on-one, hand-over-hand instruction,” said Erin Dague, speaking about her son, Dillon, who was born with cerebral palsy. The 10-year-old is non-verbal and doesn’t have the use of his arms or legs. 

“His support, his whole life is surrounded by the school support system that we have in place,” said Dague. 

That support system became completely virtual when COVID-19 hit last March. 

“He was very upset and distressed by virtual learning, to the point where he was pulling his hair out,” Dague said. 

Dague said teachers and therapists from Hamilton Southeastern School District did the best they could with the school shut down, but virtual learning wasn’t working for Dillon and he wasn’t getting his physical therapy. 

Dague said she tried several times to reach out to the district to ask how they planned to accommodate Dillon after learning the district would continue with virtual learning in the Fall. 

“We were getting nowhere,” said Dague. 

“At the time, all of the sports were in-person at the school, but my son couldn’t get his physical therapy,” she explained. 

Dague filed a complaint with the Indiana Department of Education. Within days, Dillon was back in school, receiving all of his instruction and physical therapy. 

“We appreciated the cooperation from the school, but litigation shouldn’t have had to happen,” said Dague.

It turns out Dillon’s case wasn’t unique. Federal authorities are looking into how the state has handled complaints involving students with disabilities and their access to educational services during the pandemic. A spokesperson for the state’s DOE said since July 2020, they’ve received 72 complaints involving students with special education needs.   

Twenty-six of those complaints have received hearings and are related to the pandemic. From July 2019 to June 2020, 119 complaints involving students with special needs were filed. 

Dague said her attorney has told her that her complaint is under review by the U.S. Department of Education. 

This mother said she’s ready to be her son’s voice again, this time to the federal government. 

“We would be welcome to cooperate and have a seat at the table to see how we can make things better for everyone,” said Dague.

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