Tacoma parents of special education students file complaint

Parents of special education students in Tacoma have filed a complaint about decisions the district has made during the coronavirus pandemic, asking the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to intervene.

Kristin Luippold and her husband are members of the Tacoma Special Needs PTA.

The citizen complaint sent through their attorney Monday to OSPI says they’re “representing the interests of all special education students in the Tacoma School District who are assigned a 1:1 paraeducator in their (individualized education programs), parents in the District who have received little to no communication about when their students’ special education services will be provided, and who have had decisions made cutting special education services outside of the IEP team process and without Prior Written Notice and procedural safeguards.”

Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district received the complaint Tuesday and is reviewing it.

Voelpel also said in a statement that Tuesday the district “announced plans to bring our special education students in self-contained classrooms back to school for some in-person instruction beginning this coming Monday, Sept. 28. Our plans call for these students in grades K-5 to come back four days per week, because the health department has not put any restrictions on class sizes.”

Students in grades 6-12 graders, he said, “will come back in smaller groups of 5 or fewer, because that’s the limit set by the health department. That translates to one day per week for in-person instruction.”

OSPI spokeswoman Katy Payne confirmed the state received the special education citizen complaint, which she said names 10 students. OSPI has 60 days to issue a written decision, she said, though that can be extended for “exceptional circumstances.”

Luippold said 10 families representing 11 students across the district are part of the complaint process.

She provided The News Tribune a copy of her family’s complaint, which talks about her 7-year-old son Max’s education.

“As part of his IEP, Max requires a 1:1 paraeducator to receive a free, appropriate public education, and receive an education in the least restrictive environment,” the complaint said. “Thanks to his paraeducator, he can be educated and included with his non-disabled peers. Paraeducators are an essential part of inclusion not just for Max, but for special education students throughout the District and state.”

It goes on to say: “As of the writing of this OSPI complaint, while remote paraeducator support is available to Max during the school day, Max cannot access any remote instruction or related services at all without the constant presence and assistance from his parents.”

The complaint alleges he was “not prioritized for in-person, face to face instruction as a student who requires it in order to receive (free and appropriate public education),” when school opened Sept. 9.

It also notes that June 25 the Tacoma Public School District Board approved laying off 104 paraeducators and reducing the hours of 300 others.

“Special education parents in the District were not consulted before the decision to cut paraeducators providing services on their students’ IEPs was made, either via letter to all parents, meetings with parents, or discussion in individual IEP teams,” the complaint alleges.

An Aug. 11 letter from the district to parents of special education students “indicated that IEP teams would meet with parents to plan for students’ special education services in the fall, but while Max’s IEP team has met after repeated requests from Mr. and Mrs. Luippold, multiple parents across the District report that this never occurred,” the complaint said. “… IEP team meetings are not being held until well after the start of the school year and parents are being left in the dark about when their students will begin to receive special education services.”

Michelle Bowlden has a 3-year-old preschooler whose IEP was written in April. She’s one of the Tacoma parents who sent information to the Luippolds for the OSPI complaint.

The amount of school the preschooler is getting doesn’t seem fair, Bowlden said, when other kids are getting to go four days a week.

“Basically, he gets to go in-person four days out of an entire month, and there’s no extra contact, there’s no virtual contact in the days that he’s not in in-person learning,” she told The News Tribune. “… I’m just really hoping that OSPI is able to kind of get on Tacoma and the fact that they should be supporting every student with an IEP 100 percent.”

Luippold told The News Tribune: “I really want to see Tacoma make these kids a priority and make their education a priority. They should have everything that any other child has, and the law entitles them to that. It’s their right.”

She said there are several thousand children in Tacoma on IEPs.

“I think that OSPI has the power to hold Tacoma accountable,” she said.

She emphasized how much the family values her son’s teacher, paraeducator and others.

“They’re miracle workers,” Luippold said.

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.

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