LAUSD failed disabled students during pandemic, probe finds

Los Angeles Unified failed to provide appropriate education to students with disabilities during the pandemic as required under federal law and must provide extra services to help some of the most vulnerable students recover from the significant voids in their learning, the U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday.

The investigation, conducted by the department’s Office for Civil Rights, confirms what many parents have alleged since schools were first closed — that they basically had to fend for themselves during distance learning as their children were left with little if any education and specialized assistance. The district has entered into a voluntary agreement with the federal department to fix its failings.

“Today’s resolution will ensure that the more than 66,000 Los Angeles Unified students with disabilities will receive the equal access to education to which federal civil rights law entitles them, including compensatory education for any services the district did not provide during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon in a statement.

Federal law requires that districts provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities — meaning they must get regular or special education, aids and services designed to meet their individual needs.

Since schools closed in March 2020, however, many families of students with disabilities have described facing roadblocks and delays as they tried to get help. Many said their children regressed after years of progress made in school.

In November, a federal judge ordered the state to force districts to meet the needs of 15 disabled students — including seven from L.A. Unified — after their families filed suit, arguing that their children had been denied their right to an education.

In a statement, L.A. Unified spokeswoman Shannon Haber said the district “has been and will continue to engage in ensuring individualized determinations are made for students with disabilities through Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 Plan team meetings,” referring to the legal provision that mandates services.

“Los Angeles Unified remains dedicated to helping all students, including students with disabilities, recover from the pandemic and achieve their educational goals,” Haber said.

The district failed to provide services identified in students’ legally required education plans, failed to accurately or sufficiently track services, and informed staff that the district was not responsible for providing so-called “compensatory services” aimed at helping students make up for what they lost, because the district was not at fault for the campus closures, the investigation found.

The agreement calls for the district to offer make-up services “to remedy any educational or other deficits that result from a student with a disability not receiving the evaluations or services to which they were entitled.”

In addition, the district must designate an administrator to implement a plan for compensatory education, convene teams to assess whether students were not provided appropriate education and determine the services necessary to remedy deficits.

The district must also publicize the plan to families, students and others.

Attorney Valerie Vanaman, who has been critical of the district’s treatment of students with disabilities throughout the pandemic, said she was happy about the agreement, but continues having concerns about the district’s ability to follow through.

“This is a nice outcome to see. It gets us partway there, ” she said. “Where the rubber hits the road is ‘how will they actually implement it?’”

Staff Writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report.

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