Disability group, education center, Ohio agency fight special education lawsuit

Disability Rights Ohio files to intervene in lawsuit between Warren County Educational Service Center and Ohio Department of Education and Workforce

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

An organization that advocates for an equitable Ohio for people with disabilities recently filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Warren County Educational Service Center against the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce to invalidate findings by the state. The findings claimed that the Warren County ESC violated education law and deprived students of a free appropriate public education.

In May 2022, Disability Rights Ohio filed a complaint against Warren County ESC and the local school districts for what they said were several violations of special education law. Ohio DEW agreed with the violations and ordered the ESC to make corrections. But later, they rescinded the corrections after the Warren County ESC raised concerns about the fairness of the previous findings.

After a second investigation ended in December, Ohio DEW ordered the Warren County ESC to provide updated professional development for staff and to work with the state agency and parents to make sure special education students had appropriate individualized education programs (IEPs) and were progressing at the correct rate.

A January 2024 letter from Ohio DEW cited problems including that some of the students hadn’t progressed on the Ohio Standardized Tests (OSTs) and many had scored in the “limited” range, which is the lowest level.

Warren County ESC sued Ohio DEW on Feb. 20, saying the state does not have the legal authority to order these changes, and even if they did, DEW never allowed mediation or for the district to work with them to solve the problem.

In early March, Ohio DEW entered a motion to dismiss the complaint filed by Warren County ESC. The state said the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the matter and even if it did, the case doesn’t have merit.

A temporary restraining order in the case was extended to April 8, so it is likely the judge will rule before then according to Warren County ESC and DRO officials. The judge could grant a permanent injunction; allow the case to go to trial; or rule the Warren County ESC has no right to appeal and dismiss the case.

Disability Rights Ohio filed a motion on March 20 to intervene in the case to ensure that the rights of parents and students with disabilities are enforced. They said Warren County ESC had not exhausted all of its administrative remedies.

DRO said it intervened to:

· Ensure parents of students with disabilities can pursue available remedies when they are unhappy with IEP services being provided to their children.

· Ensure WCESC administrators and staff complete training and corrective measures to remedy Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) violations.

· Ensure students with disabilities who are not receiving the services they need at WCESC get compensatory education.

· Ensure DEW complies with federal law in providing parents of students with disabilities a transparent complaint process.

“DRO intervened in the ESC lawsuit because the ESC is asking for a remedy that can directly impact the complaint findings in DRO’s original complaint, deprive students of necessary services, and prevent parents from exercising their rights in the special education process,” said Kristin Hildebrant, DRO senior attorney and education team leader.

Hildebrandt said, “the filing of the motion to intervene has been accepted by the court but the judge has not yet ruled on it. We do not know when the court will rule on it.”

“The WCESC seems to be doing everything but following ODEWs corrective action plans and taking the steps necessary to address the inadequacies we uncovered,” Hildebrandt said. “This lawsuit would not only prevent the parents of students with disabilities from exercising their rights to complain about poor education services at the WCESC, but also prohibit DEW from implementing any corrective action at WCESC, thereby depriving students of necessary services and supports to address their disability related needs.”

Disability Rights Ohio is the federally and state-designated Protection and Advocacy System and Client Assistance Program for the state of Ohio. The organization provides legal advocacy and rights protection to a wide range of people with disabilities.

Educational Service Centers supply services for school districts across Ohio, and often take the most severe cases of children with mental and emotional needs. Warren County works with school districts from as far south as West Clermont School District and as far north as Holmes County.

Among the local districts affected included Dayton Public, Xenia, Centerville, Vandalia-Butler and Springboro. The Warren County ESC operates nine buildings that provide specialized services and programs for special education and special needs children. It also provides staffing to districts, such as nurses, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists.

Warren County ESC Superintendent Tom Isaacs said, “the overriding big issue is the state believes they have the right to intervene/overturn students’ individual education plans (IEPs) which were developed by a local team including the parents/legal guardians. It is actually quite shocking the state’s position is they have unlimited power and we do not even have the right to appeal. It is nothing short of outrageous that the state wants to deny free mental health services to these children who are so dangerous to themselves and their communities.”

Isaacs said in the last court hearing, “the judge stated that we had ‘overwhelmingly’ proven our case and that his only decision is to rule on the state’s contention that we do not have any right to appeal their orders.”

He said Warren County ESC has 60 students from 40 school districts for its five-year-old program and has another 30 students on a wait list. Issacs the average stay is 95 days and following an evaluation by a mental health therapist, the student returns to his home school district.

“This is a day treatment center for students with extreme mental health challenges that makes them unsafe to themselves and others. This is not a school,” Isaacs said. “The state contends that parents do not have a right to exclude their children from a typical school curriculum. The students are placed into our program through an individual education plan (IEP) that is developed by local school team and the parents/guardians.”

Isaacs said his staff created this program and he has seen the benefits.

“It’s worth the fight because we are saving kids’ lives,” Isaacs said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

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