More than a third — 35 percent — of complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education in the last school year in D.C. involved students with disabilities, according to its annual report, released Wednesday.
Family members said requests for evaluations for potential disabilities went unanswered, that they received little advance notice about a new school assignment, and that they did not understand their child’s diagnosed disability well enough to know if they were getting adequate services. Some parents reported that their charter schools required them to provide additional supervision for their children in the classroom rather than providing services for behavioral issues.
In all, the office fielded 469 complaints in the 2014-2015 school year, and resolved nearly 90 percent of them, according to the report.
Washington is one of a handful of U.S. jurisdictions that have independent ombudsmen dedicated to education. The office was revived in February 2014 after a four-year hiatus. It fielded 150 complaints in its first partial year.
The office is designed to be a neutral third party that can address concerns so that they do not fester or escalate into court cases. It is staffed by a full-time ombudsman, Joyanna Smith, and associate ombudsman, Elizabeth Tossell, and several fellows.
“We also act as an early warning system for schools, alerting them to emerging problems before they become systemic issues,” Smith said in the report.
Almost half of the complaints in 2014-2015 came from Wards 7 and 8. Most were from parents of children in D.C. Public Schools, while about a third came from families of students enrolled in charter schools.
The ombudsman reported that the office helped enroll multiple homeless children after schools turned them away, despite federal laws that allowed them to attend, and that it facilitated mediation between a school and a family to resolve some parents’ concerns about bullying and communication.
Much of the 2014-2015 report focused on issues with school discipline. Student discipline issues comprised 16 percent of the calls. Many of the students involved have disabilities.
The report noted many concerns about violations of students’ due process rights. Parents reported that the administrative hearings regarding long-term suspensions or expulsions were delayed, even though city regulations require that they take place no more than four school days after a written notice of disciplinary action is issued.
The law also says that a student is allowed to stay in school before the hearing takes place, unless he or she is contributing to an “emergency situation” at the school. But the report said this measure appears to be “broadly applied,” and students were often out of school while their hearings were pending.
Some parents reported that their children were told to stay home from school without formal suspension papers ever being issued. Other parents said they were asked to waive their right to a disciplinary hearing.
Many students home on suspension also did not get support from the school to continue studying and went days without receiving work packets. D.C. Public Schools offers an alternative school, where students can go while on long-term suspension, but they can’t attend until they receive a final decision from the office of administrative hearings, which can take a week or longer.
The report also noted charter schools that suspend students for uniform violations or repeated tardiness or expel students for infractions, such as marijuana possession.
“Overall, we find that too many schools rely on exclusionary discipline and offer too few in-school interventions to encourage positive behavior,” the report said.