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Office of Civil Rights agreement closes investigation of special ed complaint

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
July 20, 2018

Special education concerns in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District are once again in the spotlight following a parent complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights in June.

Anita Rosin alleges the district discriminated against her son and his specific disability by way of refusing to provide procedural safeguards afforded under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. After an initial investigation the district entered into a resolution agreement with the OCR, putting the inquiry to a halt.

Rosin claims to be the complainant in this specific instance but says she has heard similar complaints by other parents. Rosin’s son started attending the 4th grade in the 2016-2017 school year with a 504 plan in place. The 504, similar to an Individualized Education Program, provides students with disabilities accommodations such as extended test time, short breaks during class and help with note taking.

Rosin says her son requires help with notes as it can be hard for him to process sentences succinctly and he occasionally gets stuck on assignments, meriting the need for breaks.

Rosin claims the principal altered her son’s 504 plan and deleted one of his major accommodations without her knowledge or consent.  

Puzzled, Rosin confronted the district regarding its failure to provide the accommodations; however, was met with delays over the course of nine months. The district eventually refused to renew the plan despite prior acknowledgement that the child required accommodations. 

“It was nine months from discovery until I pulled my kid out, but he effectively never had his 504 accommodated for over a year,” Rosin said.

Rosin requested a hearing to go over the 504 plans with the assistant superintendent of the district, however, she says during plan meetings she was never given one — the crux of the complaint.  

The OCR’s reported findings fall closely in line with Rosin’s story.

“The Complainant stated that during each of these Section 504 Plan meetings, the school did not provide her procedural safeguards,” the OCR report states. “The Complainant requested, in a September 20, 2017 email to the district assistant superintendent, to review the student’s Section 504 Plan. The district assistant superintendent responded in… an email to the Complainant that the District does not have a hearing process.”

OCR determined that the issue at stake was whether or not the district failed to provide the child with a free, appropriate public education (what is known as a FAPE) by failing to provide the parent with proper procedural safeguards when it did not give her access to an “impartial hearing” in September 2017.

According to Mandy Leigh, a special education lawyer based in San Francisco, state regulations require school districts to have a system in place to be able to determine student needs and a safeguard system in case those needs are not being met.

“When a child is disabled or is thought to be, there is a system in place to determine what their needs are, for instance extra time on a test for a fourth-grader, but if there is no system in place then that can be a violation,” Leigh said. “If services are rejected, then there are procedural safeguards. It sounds like the OCR is concerned that there are no safeguards. This is not a small violation; if they weren’t informing, then a parent can be clueless on what their rights are.”

When asked about the allegation, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District Superintendent Robert Haley responded by email: “In reading the letter you will see the Office for Civil Rights makes it clear they made no determination the school district failed to comply with Section 504.”

To complete the investigation to determine if the district was at fault, the office would have to interview district administrators and conduct a thorough review of special education policies and communications between the Complainant and the District. However, the District entered into a resolution agreement with the OCR to resolve the complaint before the office could conclude its probe..

“The Office for Civil Rights never reviewed any district documents,” Haley said. “Rather than doing so, the Office for Civil Rights offered a resolution agreement that put a minimal burden on the school district so we accepted the offer.” 

As part of the the agreement the district must develop a system for safeguards under Section 504 and policies to implement those safeguards, as well as additional training for district staff on 504 procedures. The district must also provide parents of qualified 504 students adequate notice of safeguard policies. 

The school board recently discussed the matter at June 12 and June 26 school board meetings. School Board Trustee Tim Nonn believes the superintendent and the board should have shown more transparency regarding OCR’s investigation and resulting agreement.

“I was disappointed that he didn’t share the letter from the OCR with the board before we voted on a change to the 504 policy - it was relevant to the vote… That lack of transparency prevented communication with the board and the community on what is going on with students who have been denied these rights,” Nonn said.

When asked if the complaint did indeed sound like a 504 violation, Leigh said it’s hard to tell.

“I don’t want to say yes or no as I don’t have all the facts of the case… (but it sounds like) the parent did the right thing in going to the OCR,” Leigh said.”

The Voice reached out to OCR’S civil rights attorney Genevie Gallegos for comment on the matter, but her response was not received at the time of this publication.

The District is required to a complete and submit a draft of the new policies to the OCR for review by August 31 as a part of the agreement.

The Voice also reached out to district Director of Special Education Elizabeth Kaufman for comment, however, she said via email she would be out of the office intermittently throughout the summer and directed further inquiries to the district’s special education office. Several calls to the office went unanswered.  

A source who wished to remain anonymous (due to fear of retaliation) has had similar problems with the district in obtaining an IEP or 504 plan for her child who has trouble staying focused. She said after several requests for a meeting, the school’s principal instead allegedly provided an SST (Student success meeting), which is not legally enforceable.

“During our SST meeting Ms. L (the student’s new teacher) agreed to a certain accommodation, which then went ignored,” the anonymous parent said. “We then had to request a second meeting where she was incredibly defensive at being called to task. It has been truly appalling to see how little schools really want to help students who need it, to the degree of allowing abuse and blame of students who need help and the families who seek it.”

Following Rosin’s accommodation issues, she said she enrolled her son in a different school district where he is now thriving.