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Students sue Michigan, school district over inadequate special education services

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 7/2/2021 Lily Altavena, Detroit Free Press
a sign in front of a building: Ann Arbor Public Schools District Offices in Ann Arbor, Tuesday, July 23, 2019. © Junfu Han Ann Arbor Public Schools District Offices in Ann Arbor, Tuesday, July 23, 2019.

Families in Ann Arbor are suing the Michigan Department of Education and Ann Arbor Public Schools over claims of inadequate special education during the pandemic. 

The complaint filed Wednesday asks a federal judge to certify the suit as a class action claim, which would represent all Michigan students receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

Similar complaints have been filed in other states, including New York. Frustration among parents and caregivers of students guaranteed special education services under state and federal law has grown since the beginning of the pandemic. Families say their children have been ignored or have received watered-down services, losing an entire year in learning.

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According to the suit, the four children through Ann Arbor Public Schools all lost skills and regressed academically as schools shut down and went online. The complaint alleges Ann Arbor administrators altered the children's Individualized Education Programs without notification.

It also accuses the state and school district of misusing federal special education funds, while falsely assuring the U.S. Department of Education that special education services were being provided. 

Last summer through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, MDE released special education guidance for schools, recommending they provide optional "recovery services" to students in special education programs. Skeptics viewed the advice as a way to avoid discussion of mandated services. 

Spokespeople with the Michigan Department of Education and Ann Arbor Public Schools both wrote that the organizations do not respond to pending litigation. The attorney representing the families did not respond to a request for comment.

What the suit claims 

All four students, ages 7, 9, 10 and 12, are described as having similar experiences in trying to receive special education services after in-person school shut down in March 2020. 

The claim alleges the students' IEP plans were altered without any written notice or the meaningful participation of their parents. 

Redacted copies of several IEP plans are attached to the complaints. Some notes in these documents paint a bleak picture of how students fared through the pandemic. In one case, documented as a note from August 2020, a student is said to have struggled with her mental health, harming herself.

"She is resistant to come to the computer at all, will run away and hide, will participate, but then turn off the screen and walk away if upset or bored," reads the IEP document.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are guaranteed what's called a Free Appropriate Public Education. The claim alleges the students did not receive that in the 2019-2020 school year, despite the fact that federal IDEA funds still flowed into Michigan's public schools.

More: Report: Michigan ranks 28th in nation in overall child well-being

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But the complaint goes further than that, accusing Michael Rice, the state superintendent of schools, Ann Arbor's superintendent and the superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District of racketeering by accepting federal funds and not providing adequate special education services with that money.

The complaint alleges Ann Arbor instead used some special education funding to buy personal protective equipment for staff members.

The lawsuit asks the judge to order special evaluations of the students to determine learning loss over the past year and to ensure the students receive any intervention recommended to make up for that lost learning.

Contact Lily Altavena: laltavena@freepress.com or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Students sue Michigan, school district over inadequate special education services

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