The U.S. Department of Education is investigating how Spokane Public Schools handles special education after the former director of that program filed a federal civil rights complaint.
Laura Pieper, the former director of special education, is alleging districtwide discrimination against special education students. Pieper was put on paid administrative leave in late May, and then left the district late last year.
Spokane Public Schools officials would not comment on the specifics of either the complaint or why Pieper was put on leave. The district is cooperating with the investigation and officials are independently reviewing district special education policy, spokesman Kevin Morrison said.
“We’re talking about personnel issues that we’re not going to discuss,” Morrison said.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened the investigation on May 29. Pieper’s complaint covers a number of issues, but the most important, she said, is a policy that treats special education students differently than general education students in how they’re assigned to classes.
According to the district’s teachers contract, students with Individualized Education Programs are weighted as 1.5 students by the district. This means, Pieper said, that if a class is capped at 25 students and there is one spot left, a special education student wouldn’t get into the class.
According to Pieper, this is a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a key component of which is inclusion.
“It’s a discriminatory practice,” she said. “It’s just a fact.”
Jenny Rose, president of the Spokane Education Association, said the 1.5 weighting policy alleviates teacher workload and isn’t discriminatory. Students with IEP plans require more attention from teachers, Rose said.
She believes Pieper filed the complaint in retaliation.
“Laura got demoted,” Rose said. “That’s why she filed that.”
Pieper declined to comment specifically on why she was placed on paid administrative leave or why she is no longer employed with the district. She said only that there was a philosophical divide.
“Bellevue is a progressive district, and Spokane did not match my previous experience in the way in which it enacted its policies dealing with special needs children,” said Pieper, referring to her previous employer. “It was not a good match.”
The U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation.
Lisa Pacheco, the current director of special education, also would not comment on the specifics of the investigation. However, she said the district is examining the 1.5-weighting policy, which has been in effect since the 1970s.
“I think it’s something that needs to be revisited,” she said.
Part of the issue, Pieper said, is the policy is negotiated between the district and the teachers union, which makes it harder to change.
“I want to be very clear … this is not a Dr. Redinger issue,” said Pieper, referring to the district’s superintendent. “The teacher association’s interest is the teachers. And the weighting keeps the number of special education students low per class period.”
Some national experts are divided about whether the district’s weighting policy could be considered a discriminatory practice.
Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said in an email that the practice has the potential to violate federal disability law. Marshall said she’s not seen the 1.5-weighting practice in other school districts.
“One of the defining principles of special education law is that students with disabilities should be included in the general education program as much as possible,” she said. “We would agree this practice has the potential to violate IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).”
In contrast, Candace Cortiella, the director of The Advocacy Institute, said in an email that it’s not unusual for special education students to be weighted more than general education students. However, she said if a student is denied access to a certain class and there is no equivalent class, it could be seen as a violation of the law.
Kelly Knutson’s two children have IEPs and are students in Spokane Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district. Knutson, who is an active member of the district’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council, believes the weighting policy explains problems she’s had with the district.
“The practice is an example of how corruptly they treat children with special needs,” she said. “This is kind of a cornerstone that we didn’t even know was a cornerstone, and it answers a lot of questions.”
The policy has negatively affected her adopted 8-year-old son, Zachery Knutson. Zachery has fetal alcohol syndrome as well as a number of other behavioral issues.
She said Zachery’s first-grade classroom was not a good fit for him. When she tried to move him into another class, she was denied because there was only one spot left in the other classroom.
Knutson said most parents with special needs children don’t know about the 1.5-weighting policy. She believes the district is good at providing for children with obvious disabilities but ignores students with more subtle issues.
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