Sunday, March 9, 2014

OCR Complaint Resolved; Ann Arbor News Article Sows Some Confusion

Community High School. Picture taken from the CHS web page.

Last spring (May 2013), a family leveled a complaint against the Ann Arbor Public Schools regarding the admissions process to Community High School. The complaint alleges that Community High School discriminates against special education students in the admissions process and that this student was discriminated against because his/her IEP team (team that recommends how a student's special education needs should be handled by the district) was not allowed to recommend CHS as a placement for him/her.

When I read the article about the complaint in the Ann Arbor News, it led me to believe that the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) was forcing the district to change its policy around the Community High School lottery in regards to the admission of special education students.

The article also led me to understand that the complaint alleged that the district allowed CHS to decide whether kids with disabilities would be allowed into Community High School, after they got in through the lottery.

I do not have access to the actual complaint that was filed, nor to the Agreement submitted to OCR by the Ann Arbor Public Schools.  I have read the letter from OCR confirming the Agreement, and you can read it right here. Re-reading both the Ann Arbor News article and the OCR letter, I still find the writing confusing.

The student's family did allege that the district would only allow students with disabilities to enroll at Community High School if CHS offered the disability-related services that were needed by that student. They also alleged that the student's IEP team was not allowed to recommend CHS as a placement option for him. They provided as proof some language from the CHS admissions/applications handouts.

Based on two conversations I had with AAPS staff members, it seems that the student's family wanted to go around the lottery system, and use the IEP team's recommendation that CHS would be the best environment for the student to get the student placed at Community. (I presume--but don't know for sure--that they went this route because the student did not get in by the lottery.)  The district said no, the IEP team cannot recommend CHS as a placement, the lottery determines placement at CHS.

Although the discussions that ended in the settlement are shrouded in attorney-client privilege, based on the OCR letter it looks like the district proved to Office of Civil Rights that they will provide whatever services are needed (presumably following the recommendations of the IEP team) at CHS for a student with disabilities who gets into CHS via the lottery.  But is also seems clear that the district will still not allow an IEP team to determine that CHS needs to be the placement for a student with an IEP outside of the lottery system.

In other words, the Office of Civil Rights will allow AAPS to continue to use the lottery as the way that students are admitted--or denied admission--to Community.  Only after a student gains access to a Community slot through the lottery will the IEP team help CHS figure out what accommodations/supports the student needs.

It does appear that some of the CHS admissions/applications language that was a subject of the complaint was changed.  The OCR letter indicates that the District agreed
to eliminate any statements advising or suggesting that special education services are not available at CHS or similar statements that might discourage students with disabilities from applying for enrollment at CHS
so that the district is fully in compliance with federal law.

Still confused?

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  1. The IEP team will recommend to Community", that's not how it works, Ruth. Community will send their special education staff and that staff is part of the IEP team. The district will supply Community with whatever resources the school will need to fulfill the IEP requirements. Obtaining the resources that perhaps Community doesn't have, is the district's job to do. It ain't all up to Community, at all.

  2. Thanks Maria for the correction. You can tell I have not personally gone through the process myself. There is some kind of transition between the middle school IEP team and the high school IEP team and that is what I was trying to describe.

  3. Ruth, thanks for trying to figure this out. I also read the News article, and was similarly confused. Maybe more important, the way the original article reads would confirm public biases that AAPS is not doing right by students, whereas your explanation makes them seem much more reasonable.

  4. The article was confusing especially in the headline using the word "forced". Nothing was forced.
    Ruth, your assessment is correct:
    "In other words, the Office of Civil Rights will allow AAPS to continue to use the lottery as the way that students are admitted--or denied admission--to Community. Only after a student gains access to a Community slot through the lottery will the IEP team help CHS figure out what accommodations/supports the student needs."

  5. The lottery system isn't fair, Liz, and that stands. If many high achieving kids without IEP's try to attend Community, (which, since Community goes out recruiting which kids they want to attend Community, happens), the numbers are weighted to not providing special education supports and services fairly in the district and at Community, as well. In other words, there isn't fair access to the school by special needs children.

  6. From Community's website. "John Boshoven...
    The Counselor role is fun and varied- from shoulder to cry on to college counselor and advisor. I change schedules, recruit students from middle schools, meet with college professionals throughout the world and write letters of recommendation. This year, I was honored with two awards, which mark some important distinctives of my role. Colleges That Change Lives, an organization that represents 41 colleges featured in the Loren Pope book of the same title, named me a "Counselor That Changes Lives." In late spring, I was surprised by my professional organization's highest achievement award, The Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling's William Gramenz Award. It is an honor to work with the great families and staff that is Community High School.."

  7. I believe there is a strong argument that the district's use of a lottery system to circumvent the IDEA is a violation of both the IDEA and of the ADA. The IDEA is clear that placement decisions shall be made by a multidisciplinary team and made based upon the student's individual educational needs. In many cases, the lottery schools offer different benefits (e.g. different schedules, different classes, etc.) and so the use of a lottery system to prevent IEP placements essentially deprives students of IEP placements. In most school districts, the school lottery occurs before a student's IEP meeting has been held so parents are not able to access the information needed to even determine whether their student should be in the lottery and again, parental selection of a school is not the same as a multidisciplinary placement decision under the IDEA. I do not believe that district policies trump federal or state laws and regulations...

    1. IEP meetings happen regularly, so a family with a child who has an IEP knows what needs are trying to be met in the IEP. And those families are able to go to the same information sessions as everyone else, so I think they are certainly able to access the information needed to determine whether a student should enter the lottery.

  8. IEP do not happen frequently in all districts and parents often do not know all the information they need. For example, if a student is undergoing testing because of a triennial or for a progress report, parents have to wait to see that information to better understand the educational needs. If a student transfers from another district after the lottery system, they cannot be placed there. In some districts, the regular public schools (not charter schools) use the lottery system and offer very different benefits than the non-lottery schools. For example they offer the same classes every day (instead of the 1-3-5, 2-4-6 system), different classes, etc. The ADA and section 504 of the Rehab Act both prevent public entities from creating barriers that prevent persons with disability from asserting their rights. The use of a lottery system prevents a student with disabilities from asserting their right to that a school that may better suit their individual educational needs. Federal and states laws are pretty clear that placement of a student with special educational needs should be decided by a team, not via a family's lottery application. My belief is that district lotteries cannot be used to circumvent state and federal laws governing persons with disabilities.