SPEDWatch files legal complaint against Wareham Schools

Jan 23, 2021

SPEDWatch, Inc., a special education advocacy group, has filed a complaint with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education alleging that Wareham Schools used illegal language on forms related to Individualized Education Plans which guarantee accommodations for students who need them.

SPEDWatch’s complaint included a redacted copy of a student’s N1 form which includes the line “The Parent agrees to excuse the District from strict performance of IEP timelines which are challenging pursuant to governmental directives arising from or related COVID-19 pandemic issues.”

The complaint goes on to explain that per the state’s guidance, districts must use a “student-centered approach to timelines instead of a district-wide approach.” The state later said that districts must “continue to treat timelines as if they are in effect and make efforts to meet them” including “attempting to agree with parents on extending any deadlines.”

Asked for comment, Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said that the complaint is a legal matter, which limits her ability to comment.

“We have always and will continue to provide special education services and comply with timelines as required by the state and federal government, understanding that we are in a global pandemic,” Shaver-Hood said. “We have always worked with families and if any family was unwilling to extend timelines during the pandemic we used our best efforts to complete the task within the timeline, despite the extraordinary circumstances.”

Ellen Chambers, the founder of SPEDWatch, said that while districts are allowed to work individual families to extend timelines as necessary, districts are not allowed to use language that would give them a blanket excuse to fail to meet those deadlines.

“What the school district is doing here is they are, themselves, giving themselves wide latitude to not meet regulatory timelines,” Chambers said. “The parent, in this instance, did not agree. She didn’t even realize that sentence was in there.” 

She said that these kinds of policy violations are unfortunately common across the state. In the spring and summer of 2020, her group filed complaints against roughly 25 districts across the state using similar language or otherwise violating special education laws. 

Chambers explained that Massachusetts law dictates that districts must meet certain timelines for providing accommodations to children. When parents request an evaluation, it must take place within a certain number of days. After a meeting between parents and the district to develop an Individualized Education Plan, the district must set that plan in writing within a particular time frame.

“The importance of timelines, of course, is without them, things can go on forever and ever while the kid needs help,” Chambers said.

The onset of the covid pandemic complicated matters, as schools and districts were in some cases unable to meet the legal timelines. Chambers said that the federal government’s legal timelines remained in effect, as did state timelines. 

The state then issued guidance urging districts to treat timelines as if they were still in effect, but giving districts some flexibility if they worked with families and came up with a mutual written agreement.

In effect, Chambers argued that Wareham was circumventing that guidance without parents’ knowledge or consent by “very discreetly” including the language cited in the complaint at the end of a somewhat lengthy paragraph of form language.

“It’s really important to understand that SPEDWatch and the parents we represent — our intent is not to insist that all school districts adhere strictly to these timelines,” Chambers said. “We know that's impossible. All we want is for districts to have the decency to read the guidance from the state, and abide by the guidance.”

The complete complaint is attached to this article.