On May 19, 2023, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Justice Department (DOJ) issued a joint letter addressing barriers that college students with disabilities face while accessing online services, programs, and activities—an issue that has become particularly acute since educational delivery moved online in response to the COVID pandemic. The letter acknowledges higher education’s increasing reliance on online platforms and the challenges that students with disabilities commonly encounter when engaging with these platforms. The letter also reminds institutions of their obligations under federal laws and recently issued guidance, highlights key enforcement actions by both departments, and provides information on where college students and members of the public can go to get help or file complaints related to digital access at higher education institutions. Continue Reading OCR and DOJ Issue Joint Letter Addressing Online Accessibility in Higher Ed
On July 18, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released its revised Case Processing Manual (CPM), which was last updated in August 2020. The CPM outlines the procedures OCR uses to investigate and resolve complaints under the civil rights laws it enforces, including Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The revised manual contains several noteworthy changes schools and colleges should be aware of, including the following highlighted below.
Definition of “complaint”
- Defines “complaint” as “a written statement to the Department [of Education] alleging that the rights of one or more persons have been violated and requesting that the Department take action.”
- Expressly states that the following are not considered complaints: oral allegations, anonymous correspondence, courtesy copies of correspondence or a complaint filed or submitted somewhere else, and inquiries that seek advice/information but not action/intervention. Previously, OCR was permitted to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to process such correspondence or inquiries as a complaint.
- Clarifies that OCR may investigate Title IX complaints filed by employees as well as by students, parents, and applicants.
On July 19, 2022, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) released several guidance documents concerning the civil rights of students with disabilities specific to student discipline. The resources are aimed at minimizing exclusionary discipline and supporting the pandemic-related mental health needs of students, particularly those with disabilities. With respect to schools providing training on the how to address disability-based behavior and implement the guidance, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, “we expect that districts utilize the federal American Rescue Plan dollars to build capacity, provide professional learning opportunities for educators and school leaders, and hire additional staff.” The guidance documents reiterate requirements under federal law for disciplining students with disabilities and offers best practices and considerations for ensuring school disciplinary policies and practices are implemented in a non-discriminatory manner. Each guidance document is summarized below.
Continue Reading OCR and OSERS Issue Guidance on IDEA and Section 504 Requirements for Addressing Disability-Based Student Behavior
The Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education recently issued a new Fact Sheet. The Fact Sheet repeats prior guidance that “the responsibility for schools to comply with Section 504 continues regardless of how schools provide education: virtually, in-person, or with a hybrid learning model.” Accordingly, the guidance provides that 504 teams should meet if needed to address changes in student needs related to the pandemic as well as to determine whether compensatory services are warranted. The OCR Fact Sheet follows the Q&A issued by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services last fall, which also called for IEP teams to make compensatory services determinations for students who missed services due to the pandemic.
Continue Reading OCR Issues Fact Sheet on Providing FAPE During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Addressing the Need for Compensatory Services Under Section 504
On May 13, 2021, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights published a Q&A on Civil Rights and School Reopening in the COVID-19 Environment. The document is aimed at “helping schools reopen safely and in ways that support equity among students” and addresses obligations under Section 504 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability), Title VI (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin), and Title IX (prohibiting discrimination based on sex). In the disability section, most of the answers repeat or expand on prior guidance from the Department. And on the one question where we are anticipating new guidance, the answer: keep anticipating. “The Department is aware of important questions regarding compensatory services for students with disabilities and plans to address those in a separate guidance document.” A brief summary of the other answers follows.
To start, yes, public schools still have to comply with Section 504 (was there any doubt?). Given that obligation, when schools are operating remotely, students are still entitled to FAPE and Section 504 teams and IEP teams need to make individualized determinations about whether adjustments are needed in this new model. This guidance echoes what the Department has said since early in the pandemic. The Q&A also reiterates that remote learning services must be provided in a way that is accessible to students with disabilities (accommodations like captioning on videos and audio versions of written text).Continue Reading New OCR Q&A Reiterates Guidance, Promises Additional Guidance on Compensatory Services to Come
A recent OCR decision out of Wyoming is a reminder to school districts of their Child Find obligations—including during remote instruction. In Teton County School District, Wyoming, OCR found in favor of the school district who responded to a doctor’s note diagnosing anxiety and depression with immediate supports and initiating an evaluation. The case illustrates the perils of informal communication about disabilities but confirms that not every reference to a disability triggers the obligation to evaluate.
In the Wyoming case, there were several red flags that unfolded for school personnel.Continue Reading OCR Decision Highlights Common Child Find Red Flags
In the final weeks of the Trump administration, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) initiated “proactive investigations” against Seattle Public Schools and the Indiana Department of Education related to special education services during the pandemic. You’ll recall that since the early days of COVID-19 and the first school shut-downs, the Department of Education has maintained that, while the methodology may change, the obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with IEPs and 504 plans remains intact. In October, OCR and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) reiterated that position in two FAQ documents. These new investigations, opened as the Trump administration was headed out the door, were based on “disturbing reports” in local news media. The investigations aim to determine if Seattle Public Schools and the Indiana Department of Education have met federal requirements to provide appropriate and individualized instruction to students with disabilities during the pandemic.
Continue Reading Outgoing OCR Opens Investigations Into Special Education Services During Remote Learning
In a July 2019 briefing report, the United States Commission on Civil Rights warned that students of color with disabilities face exclusionary discipline, like suspensions and expulsions, at much higher rates than their peers without disabilities. What is the Commission, what were its findings and recommendations, and what do they mean for your school or school district?
Continue Reading Discipline, Special Education, and Race: Key Takeaways From Civil Rights Commission Report
Most of the cases the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) handles involve disability discrimination, including claims that a school failed to implement an IEP or Section 504 plan. In our experience, however, OCR is often an afterthought for school employees who work in the field, and when OCR comes knocking school leaders often feel unprepared. Read on for five tips to help you feel more confident the next time you receive notice of an OCR complaint.
Continue Reading Back to Basics: OCR is at the Door – Five Steps to Mount Your Best Defense
Where do you draw the line between pre-IEP-meeting preparation, which the law allows, and “predetermination” prior to the meeting, which can get schools into hot water? This was one topic discussed during our recent Franczek webinar, IEP Season is Coming . . . Are You Ready?, which included a “top 10” list of issues to keep in mind heading into the IEP season. We encourage you to watch the 30-minute webinar, which is available on demand on our website, but want to dig in on one issue raised in it: A major mistake that can turn permissive pre-IEP-meeting planning into prohibited predetermination. What is it? How do you avoid the risk? Read on!
Continue Reading This One Mistake Can Turn Pre-IEP-Meeting Planning into Prohibited Predetermination