San Bernardino County, U.S. Education Department Agree to Ensure that Students with Disabilities in Alternative and Juvenile Court Schools Receive Free, Appropriate Education

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San Bernardino County, U.S. Education Department Agree to Ensure that Students with Disabilities in Alternative and Juvenile Court Schools Receive Free, Appropriate Education

August 5, 2016

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has entered into a resolution agreement with the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools in California to address compliance issues involving students with disabilities in alternative and juvenile court schools.

An OCR investigation found that the county discriminated against students with disabilities in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

"All students, including students in alternative and juvenile court schools, deserve equal access to a high-quality public education," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for OCR. "In providing strong and effective systems to identify, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities, these schools can stop the cycle of revolving placements, place students with disabilities on a path to educational success, and remove them from the school-to-prison pipeline."

She added, "I am grateful for the county's responsiveness during the course of the compliance review, as well as its commitment going forward to take necessary steps to protect the civil rights of students with disabilities who are in an alternative education program."

San Bernardino County is the largest county in the United States by geographic area (20,164 square miles). The county directly operates 14 community schools and two juvenile court schools.

OCR's compliance review examined the county's process for ensuring that each student with a disability receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in its community and court schools, including identifying and evaluating students with disabilities and suspected disabilities, ensuring appropriate placement procedures are in place, and implementing special education plans for students who have them when they enter a court or community school.

The office found violations of Section 504 and Title II and their implementing regulations because the county:

  • Lacked an adequate system to identify and evaluate students with suspected disabilities.
  • Failed to comply with the legal requirement to conduct an individualized determination of student needs for students with disabilities.
  • Provided a fixed predetermined amount of specialized instructional time that a student would receive, automatically reducing any higher service levels provided for in individual student special education plans.
  • Failed to implement the specialized instruction and related services, such as speech therapy, required in existing individualized education programs (IEPs), and did not have a system in place to track service provision or provide make-up services to students when services were not provided.
  • Failed to have a reliable system for monitoring evaluation and reevaluation requests and the receipt of records from transferring districts that identify students with disabilities and required services.
  • Failed to have a reliable system for recording records from transferring districts that identify students with disabilities and required services.
  • Failed to train staff on the requirements related to Section 504 and how to identify and develop plans for accommodating and providing aids and services to students with disabilities identified under Section 504.
  • Relied on paraeducators instead of special education teachers to provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities.

In addition, OCR recognized that students with disabilities who do not receive services and supports necessary to address disability-related behavioral issues may unnecessarily and unfairly suffer exclusionary school discipline. In response to this concern, the county agreed to develop a system to ensure that students with disabilities are not impermissibly disciplined on the basis of their disabilities.

During the course of OCR's investigation, the county took proactive and significant steps to address some concerns OCR identified. For example, it has already begun implementation of identification, training and tracking systems for students identified with disabilities under Section 504.

The resolution agreement requires the county, among other things, to:

  • Implement a standard record keeping system for timely provision of records for students entering and exiting its schools and to ensure procedural requirements related to identification, evaluation, reevaluation, placement, and service implementation are met.
  • Hire a qualified project manager to work with the county to develop a needs assessment and action plan for addressing the issues identified with implementation of IEP/Section 504 plans, related service and instruction delivery by qualified staff, record keeping, and provision of appropriate placements to meet students' individualized needs.
  • Develop a comprehensive monitoring and assessment system for special education and related services placement and service delivery in the county's community and court schools in coordination with the project manager.
  • Review existing IEPs of current students to assess whether IEP/Section 504 plans were changed improperly without following proper procedures and convene a placement team meeting to assess provision of compensatory education services to address identified needs. And,
  • Revise policies and procedures to ensure they are consistent with Section 504 and Title II and their implementing regulations, conduct training for paraeducators regarding their duties and responsibilities, and convene a joint meeting between Special Education program staff and county and community school staff to improve service provision for students with disabilities.

A copy of the resolution letter is posted here. And, a copy of the agreement can be found here.

OCR's mission is to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the nation through the vigorous enforcement of civil rights. OCR is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination by educational institutions on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, sex, and age, as well as the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act of 2001. Additional information about OCR is available here.