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Federal officials question Mass. oversight of special education

The US Department of Education is launching a review into whether the state is failing to uphold the rights of special education students by not adequately monitoring local school districts and making sure they’re in compliance with federal law in regards to students with disabilities.Jessica Rinaldi

The federal government is launching an inquiry into whether Massachusetts’ education department is failing to uphold the rights of special education students by not adequately monitoring local school districts to ensure they’re in compliance with federal law regarding students with disabilities.

In a Sept. 29 letter obtained by the Globe, the US Department of Education and the Office of Special Education Programs instructs the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, to hand over within 60 days specific data, documentation, and records related to its procedures for overseeing special education.

The inquiry comes after parents, teachers, and advocacy groups alleged that the state is not fulfilling its supervisory role, in some cases allowing students to go years without necessary special education support and resources.


“The Department takes these concerns seriously and has requested the state provide additional information . . . to determine if there are non-compliance issues with IDEA,” a federal Department of Education spokesperson said in a statement.

While local school districts are responsible for providing special education services for students as required by federal law, the state is responsible for overseeing compliance.

Russell Johnston, deputy commissioner at DESE, said the agency is working on “providing a thorough and detailed response.”

“DESE believes the services and support schools and districts provide to students with disabilities is critical to the students’ success in school and beyond,” Johnston said in a statement. “DESE works closely with schools and districts to provide high quality special education services to students with disabilities.”

Based on the concerns from parents and advocates, the federal agency questioned whether the state properly investigates when a parent files a complaint about how a local school district is handling their child’s existing or potential special education needs. Families also said there are significant delays in getting the state to make decisions about those complaints, according to the letter, prompting the federal agency to probe how effectively the state is ensuring its decisions are put into practice by local schools.


After reviewing data submitted by the state, publicly available policies, and examples of complaint decisions, the Office of Special Education Programs “is concerned about the decrease in the number of timely State complaint decisions and the increase in the number of pending State complaints,” read the letter.

Families and advocates are especially concerned that children are not getting access to special education services in a timely manner due to a delay in evaluations, according to the letter, and said many students are not getting referred for evaluations at all. According to federal law, schools are responsible for proactively identifying students who may have special education needs and referring them for evaluations — a process called Child Find.

Ellen Chambers, founder of the Norfolk-based special education advocacy group SPEDWatch, has worked for nearly 20 years to raise awareness of problems in the Massachusetts special education system, and said parents complain most about problems with Child Find.

“It shouldn’t require a parent intervening. We have many students who are failing academically, struggling socially, struggling with mental health issues that are impacting their ability to attend and perform in school,” Chambers said.These struggles have been going on for years for these students, and the districts do nothing. . . . It’s absolutely horrible.”

When local school districts do not have the capabilities or resources to provide essential special needs services for a student, those districts are required to pay the tuition for the student to attend certain specialized private schools, called 766 schools.


The federal agency raised concerns in the letter that the state is not effectively monitoring those approved special education schools by ensuring the schools have qualified personnel and can provide the services outlined in students’ Individualized Education Plans.

Ben Tobin, a special education teacher in Western Massachusetts and member of SPEDWatch, said families told him their children are not getting the services they need at those designated private schools.

It can take years for students to finally be placed into such a school, Tobin said, and if there are problems at that campus, including untrained teachers, parents struggle with whether to file a complaint, fearing their child may be kicked out. “I’ve heard from a number of parents who are afraid of retaliation, because the threat is you will lose your placement,” he said.

Chambers said she and other SPEDWatch members are heartened over the launch of the federal review, but said it is long overdue. They ultimately want an independent review of the state’s oversight procedures.

“The methodology that the Department of Education uses to monitor and force special education law in our schools — and you can quote me — is useless,” said Chambers.

Niki Griswold can be reached at Follow her @nikigriswold.