SEATTLE - The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Seattle Public Schools after "disturbing reports" about how the district handled special education during the coronavirus pandemic.
Once a happy kid, Aparna Prasad says her son Gautham has significantly regressed with no in-person therapy or lessons from Seattle Public Schools.
Gautham is autistic and non-verbal. His mom says the 9-year-old no longer makes eye contact and is repeating behaviors.
"All he wanted to do was stay under the blankets," Prasad said.
Prasad says teachers and staff at Daniel Bagley Elementary in North Seattle are supportive.
It’s the district and the special education department she says that are failing to provide the basic needs for the most vulnerable student population.
"There is an extreme apathy there is a lack of care at the district level," Prasad said.
Now the feds are getting involved. The Department of Education sent a letter from the Office for Civil Rights to Superintendent Denise Juneau saying they had initiated an investigation. In this rare case, the feds taking it upon themselves to investigate SPS. The letter stated that they’ve come across ‘disturbing reports’ specifically from ‘one local news report’ that the district had told teachers not to deliver specially designed instruction to special needs children.
"It’s about time they are investigating, I’m glad," Prasad said.
SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson released this statement.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have followed and will continue to follow the guidance of OSPI. Since March, every time state guidance has changed, the district has adjusted. Seattle Public Schools is aware of the investigation and will fully cooperate with the US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. We want to emphasize the same thing that the OCR letter states, that in no way does an investigation indicate that a violation exists."
On Thursday, the Washington Autism Alliance said the statement from SPS made no sense to them.
"The fact that they followed OSPI guidance makes no sense to me it’s because it’s not consistent of what "I’m seeing coming out of OSPI," Arzu Forough said.
Forough says they are hearing from many families across the state but especially a lot from people in the SPS district.
"Flooded is the right word," Forough said.
Access to in-person lessons for special education kids varies by district.
For example by early November, Tacoma Public Schools had 720 high-needs children receiving in-person learning. Also, Clover Park School District had 785 students and Puyallup School District brought back 760 special needs children back for in-person learning. In comparison at the time, SPS had 40 students.
"To me, that’s a red flag, it’s blatant the facts are there," Prasad said.
Prasad says she’s been requesting for in-person learning since September and about a week ago she was told her son was approved. But she has yet to find out when that will actually happen.
"What Seattle Public Schools has been doing beautifully is been deflecting they are basically buying time, my question is when, like when are you going to do something and stop talking to me about the fact that you will do something," Prasad said.
Prasad says they had to hire a private therapist to help with speech therapy and other vital needs. It is costing them up to $5,000 a month. Prasad says it is hard enough for her working family to afford that she can’t imagine what it’s like for others with fewer means.