The Senate Education Committee met on Tuesday to discuss civil rights violations in public schools. Chairman Campion introduced Emily Simmons (General Counsel, Agency of Education), saying that he had been reading a lot in the news about public school and that they were attempting to understand what happens when the federal government gets involved and settles agreements, etc. He was also interested in whether the Agency of Education (AOE) participated in investigating or adjudicating these.
Simmons expressed that “there isn’t one universal legal scheme that I can walk you through. This is going to be a case where we have interactions and overlaps between state systems, federal systems and school board systems.” She noted that it was complex and that there was “not going to be a universal answer for most of these questions.”
She started with AOE perspective on cases where the US Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is involved. It is a “totally distinct process from any state education agency authority. But in a very general sense what you are going to find there is they enforce certain Federal protections, either in the US Constitution or in Acts of Congress (and Regulations).” Simmons clarified that AOE has no role in Federal investigations, they are not noticed and often find out by “other avenues.” She acknowledges that may surprise them.
The federal investigations are complaint-driven, and investigations are initiated by individuals. What OCR is looking for are jurisdictional thresholds in federal law, cases must meet these thresholds in order to proceed.
AOE’s jurisdictional purview is state law which may not necessarily overlap with federal law and the jurisdiction of OCR. AOE does investigate and, in some cases, will refer complaints to the individual’s attorney when the protected category involved determines that they be advised of their civil rights. They will also refer to OCR, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, or the school district in question. Simmons noted that the authority to investigate complaints is generally “not given to AOE but are given to school districts or supervisory unions.”
Campion mentioned Springfield, where there is monitoring of Special Education in place, as he recalled, due to a complaint-driven system. Simmons clarified that “monitoring” is not a “complaint driven process.”
However, she noted that AOE has a greater authority in the special education arena than “some other topics” because of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The state can accept complaints from parents or students and refer to their Federally mandated dispute resolution processes. From the initial complaint there are three channels that can be pursued: mediation paid for by the state for the parent or student to resolve the dispute without formal adjudication, corrective action the AOE requires from the school district, or there could also be a finding of no violation of any rule or statute. This is the most common disposition type.
Campion noted that “involves a lot of authority on AOE,” and asked about staffing capacity and whether the Agency had tools to address staffing at school districts as well. Simmons responded AOE “involvement” doesn’t change the FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education) requirements for school districts. If districts have a staffing issue, they retain the obligation to continue to pursue accommodation and staff.
Campion moved on to the 2200 rule series (Act 173) and independent schools. He wondered what would happen if one of these failed to offer Special Education services and how the State Board of Education would intervene. Simmons commented that there were “layers to track here.” Essentially, the same requirements and reporting structures are in place because the federal government considers the school district as the legal entity responsible for providing special education services.
“The end result for parents,” she explained, “is they have the same rights as attending public school.” Additionally, independent schools who are approved to receive public funds also have a responsibility to take any student which the school district places there, even if they have a special education requirement. Refusal to accept a student with special education needs could lead to that school’s approval status being suspended or revoked.