By Gloria Martinez, Grace Regullano, Heather Zakson, and Anthony V LeClair
Serious, systemic deficiencies in our nation’s schools existed for students with disabilities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most egregious racial discipline disparities have been well documented for as long as we have collected data on students with disabilities. Parents have struggled to navigate the increasing multitude of barriers just to obtain an individualized education plan (IEP) for their children who need specialized instruction and services. Meanwhile, school districts and administrators have failed to provide even the least resource-intensive accommodations for students who require only accommodations and not full-fledged IEP service plans. Schools continue to lack counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses at adequate ratios to meet the growing, complex needs of students. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the department’s dedicated civil rights enforcement arm (and perhaps our greatest tool for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, as discussed below), has failed to meet its mission to protect students’ civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. It is more important than ever that we tackle the long-standing civil rights vacuum in special education as we simultaneously deal with the current pandemic and look forward to recovery.
On March 23, 2021, the national Fulfill the Promise coalition—an alliance of parents of students with disabilities; union educators from California, Massachusetts, Texas, and Wisconsin; civil rights attorneys; and local community organizations—filed a Class Petition for Guidance with the Department of Education to demand clear special education federal guidance by June 21, 2021. This class petition was one of several concrete steps to draw public and government attention to the need for civil rights protections for students with disabilities in our nation’s kindergarten through twelfth-grade schools. Congress must finally follow through on promises made to students with disabilities over 40 years ago as part of the enactment of the IDEA. Congress also must ensure that the needs of students who are eligible for supports and services under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, along with the need of children who have suffered deep trauma during the pandemic, are not overlooked. This diverse coalition is leading the charge to address the root causes of disability inequity in U.S. public schools using a multifaceted approach.
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