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As a former school committee member with more than a decade of experience advocating for twin sons with special needs, Jennifer Curran is not used to feeling powerless in dealing with schools.
But when school officials in her small western Massachusetts town of Granby presented Curran in May with a document requesting that she relinquish federally protected rights for her sons’ special education services during school closures, Curran assumed it was part of a new, and troubling, pandemic reality. She signed the paperwork.
“I felt like I had no choice,” she said.
Now, the state says Granby and at least 10 other Massachusetts school districts, including Beverly, Malden, and Norfolk, violated state and federal special education laws by asking parents this spring to absolve school districts of key special education responsibilities, including, in some cases, the provision of vital services (such as speech therapy and one-on-one reading help), and, in others, the requirement to follow a strict timeline governing how quickly a child must be assessed for a disability and provided an instruction plan.
The state is still investigating several other districts, including Braintree, Brookline, Hingham, and Framingham (one of them, Keefe Regional Technical School, denied issuing waivers).
All told, a special education watchdog group called SPEDWatch has filed complaints against 25 districts for trying to get parents to sign away special education rights (or violating those rights).
Meanwhile, interviews with a dozen parents, lawyers, and advocates suggest the scale of the problem may be much broader since in some communities parents haven’t known — or had the confidence — to complain.
“They’re preying on the fact that most parents don’t fully understand all of the laws around special education,” said Denise Sullivan, a state-appointed education advocate for students in foster care.
Sullivan, who lives in Chicopee, said she’s been asked to surrender special education rights on behalf of 23 students in the four months since Governor Charlie Baker ordered schools to close. Most of the students are from nearby Springfield. “School administrators are only looking out for school administration,” she said, “not the children or parents.”
In a written response, Mary Anne Morris, the Springfield district’s head of special education, denied that any parents have been asked to relinquish their rights. (Springfield was not among the districts flagged by SPEDwatch or being investigated by the state.)
In statements to the Globe, several school districts that were cited said they did their best amid the pandemic-induced disruption, with limited access to key student files and as guidelines from state and federal officials evolved.
State officials in mid-April said schools could work with families to change certain special-education timelines as long as they were making “good faith” efforts to keep on schedule. But that guidance changed in May, after the Trump administration clarified that districts shouldn’t ask families to waive any core special education rights.
School districts in New Jersey and Illinois also asked parents to cede different special education rights in an apparent effort to limit legal liability over scaled-back services.
In Massachusetts, the most common waiver asked families to give away their rights to federally established timelines and deadlines surrounding special education. Typically, a student must be evaluated for a disability within 30 school days of a parent’s written request. The school must meet with parents to determine a student’s eligibility within 45 school days of that initial request. The school then has 10 school days to deliver a proposed plan. Parents have 30 calendar days to sign and return the plan, at which point it is supposed to go into effect immediately.
Those timelines can be vitally important, said Tere Ramos, an attorney who represents several families in Worcester. In May, Ramos attended an online meeting that one Worcester mother had scheduled with district officials to discuss her son’s education services.
The mother (who declined to be interviewed for this story) had been asking for months to move her child to another Worcester public school she thought would be more supportive and help the student work through challenges including post traumatic stress disorder. The proposed plan included the move — a huge win.
But there was a hitch.
The district also wanted the mother to agree that the district would not be held to any timeline for delivering special education services.
“It was basically a de facto stripping of the parents’ rights,” said Ramos.
If Ramos hadn’t known to demand the removal of the timeline waiver on behalf of her client, the district could have delayed transferring the child to a new school indefinitely, the lawyer said.
“If you don’t follow those timelines, time runs on and on,” said Ramos. “That’s how they get away with not providing a service for a whole semester.”
In a statement, the Worcester schools superintendent, Maureen Binienda, responded that district officials “made individual decisions for each student” and sometimes asked “for a short extension” in terms of providing services. (Worcester was not included in the SPEDWatch complaints and is not under investigation for using waivers.)
Braintree parent Dawn McGurn said she was asked to sign a waiver on behalf of her son, a sixth-grader with dyslexia, that not only asked her to give up rights to a timeline but didn’t specify when, or if, she would get those rights back. She refused to sign.
Parents and attorneys said the school districts often presented the waivers as a form of quid pro quo: Signing away some rights, at least temporarily, might be portrayed as crucial to getting a meeting scheduled or continuing to receive at least some services for a child.
“They’re giving parents an either-or,” said Ellen Chambers, founder of SPEDWatch. “You agree to waive timelines and waive your procedural rights ... or you’ll have to wait” for a meeting.
In Shrewsbury, for example, parents were invited over the course of the spring to virtual meetings to discuss their children’s education plans — if they agreed to “waive any and all claims .. .for procedural violations related to such a meeting,” according to documents provided to the Globe by SPEDWatch.
In a statement, Shrewsbury Superintendent Joe Sawyer said the statement was meant to address “the unique issues of confidentiality” related to holding meetings online through video conferencing. When the state ultimately cautioned against using waivers, “our district immediately retracted the documents,” he said.
All of the 11 districts chastised by the state took corrective action, according to state officials. In Granby, for instance, school staff sent letters to parents saying the waivers were null and void.
“There was never an expectation that you needed to sign this form,” wrote Granby Public Schools’ interim superintendent, Carol Hepworth, in a letter to parents. (Hepworth hasn’t responded to a request for comment from the Globe).
Granby parent Jennifer Curran hadn’t noticed the message nullifying the waiver in her inbox until a Globe reporter asked about it. She’s still stunned that the district asked parents to sign the waivers at all, and believes it shows how overwhelmed district staff were at the time. “I think they were really struggling,” she said.
Yet Curran added that the district has actually been following required timelines, and is trying to fulfill her twin 15-year-old sons’ special education plans.
Russell Johnston, the state’s director of special education, said that while the waivers were problematic, he believes districts are no longer using them.
In addition to reprimanding the 11 districts in writing, Johnston said he urged district special education leaders in a Zoom call on May 1 not to ask families to sign waivers.
Guidance the state published May 21 also cautioned against “blanket policies” for special education timelines and services. “We kept referring districts back to the idea: you need to make individualized decisions,” Johnston said. “Blanket statements aren’t going to hold up.”
Despite the state’s actions, Chambers, with SPEDWatch, said she’s confident that violations persist at several districts in the state. “The department of education has no way to police and enforce what’s going on in school districts in real time,” she said.
And several families and lawyers say some districts are skipping the waivers — yet still ignoring special education deadlines.
Tracy Graham, who lives in the central Massachusetts town of Clinton, requested in late January that the school district evaluate her 7-year-old son for learning disabilities. The mother, along with two of the child’s doctors, suspected dyslexia.
The school did not finish the evaluation before closing due to COVID. All spring, Graham tried — without much success — to get him the help he needed.
In May, the school finally scheduled a meeting for June — only to wind up postponing it to the fall, according to Graham. She worries her son will fall even further behind at a crucial age for learning to read and write.
“He’s falling between the cracks,” Graham said.
In an e-mail response, the Clinton superintendent said the district is following state guidance and has continued meeting with families about special education plans throughout the pandemic.
Denise Sullivan, the education advocate for children in foster care, had a similar experience in Springfield. She said the district refused to hold timely meetings on behalf of two clients who needed new education plans.
Leanne Korb, the district’s special education coordinator, wrote to Sullivan in a May e-mail: “Springfield currently has a protocol of holding only annual review meetings” for students with disabilities — a change that in some cases violates the federally mandated timelines.
In a statement, district officials say they have never delayed student evaluations or meetings when “it was possible to go forward.”
Sullivan said it didn’t make much of a difference in Springfield when officials cautioned districts statewide against using waivers. Even though it empowered her to reassert her clients’ right to a timeline, Springfield has still struggled to comply.
She worries about the fall, when there will likely be a backlog of families whose evaluations and meetings have been delayed. Without outside help —a nd more prodding — she fears districts will continue to fall behind.
“COVID has given a loophole to the school districts to provide even less,” she said.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.