Disability rights group accuses school district, state of denying students rights

In a complaint, Disability Rights Oregon said Klamath Falls City School District, Oregon Education Department are violating laws that protect students with disabilities

By: - December 10, 2021 5:30 am

As students prepare to return to school, districts are offering bonuses and pay raises to attract and retain much needed teachers and school staff. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon is alleging that the Klamath Falls City School District and the Oregon Education Department are violating laws that guarantee equal education for students with disabilities. 

The group’s attorney, Joel Greenberg, filed a complaint Tuesday, Dec. 7 at the state agency that names Education Department Director Colt Gill and Keith Brown, Klamath Falls City School District superintendent, on behalf of three students with autism. 

The group alleges the district has been reducing students’ classroom instruction time by shortening or eliminating school days since December 2019. 

The complaint against the agency itself alleges officials failed to operate a system that provides equal opportunities for students with disabilities. 

The complaint will trigger an investigation by the Education Department into the allegations against the school district.

The central reason the district gave for cutting students’ class time, according to the complaint, was because each of them “lacked stamina” or had “limited stamina” for academic tasks and school activities.

Disability Rights Oregon said that by cutting class hours for these students, the district failed to provide them a federally-mandated “free and appropriate public education.” This right requires that schools provide equal class time, quality instruction and integration in classes with their peers without disabilities, among other requirements. The mandate is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In an email to the Capital Chronicle, Brown wrote, “We are working on this matter.”

Disability Rights Oregon said in its complaint that the Education Department violated state and federal laws by not creating a system to address systemic failures in a timely manner. The group said these problems at Klamath Falls City School District are, in part, due to the small size and rural location of the district. Enrollment as of 2019 was 2,913 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 18% of students in the district are on Individualized Education Plans, which provide support and services for students with a disability.

The group said rural schools have less access to the support and services than students in the state’s metropolitan areas.

“Oregon Department of Education has failed to discharge its responsibility to operate and oversee a comprehensive educational system which guarantees that students who live in small or rural districts receive a FAPE [Free and Appropriate Public Education] free from discrimination,” they wrote in the complaint. 

The complaint against the Education Department could trigger some fact-finding or investigation internally.

A representative from Disability Rights Oregon said that by naming the department in the complaint, “We’re calling on ODE to do their job here.” 

In an email to the Capital Chronicle, Tenneal Wetherell, the assistant superintendent of enhancing student opportunities at the Education Department, wrote that the agency has received the complaint and is processing it. 

By state rule, the Education Department has 60 days to issue a written decision “that addresses each allegation in the complaint and contains findings of fact, conclusions, and reasons for the department’s final decision.”

The department is still in litigation over a 2018 class action lawsuit that names it, Gov. Kate Brown and Gill as defendants. That case, brought by four student plaintiffs and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national non-profit advocating for students with disabilities, alleged that the Education Department lacked state-wide enforcement and support for school districts related to special education. They said this has led to a statewide pattern of schools misusing shortened school days and schedules for students with disabilities that violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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