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Indiana committee finds few solutions for the high cost of special education disputes

The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators sent a letter to the chancellor saying that  schools are struggling to implement discipline reforms.
The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators sent a letter to the chancellor saying that schools are struggling to implement discipline reforms.
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A group tasked with improving Indiana’s system for settling special education disputes identified few solutions for one of lawmakers’ biggest concerns with the process: the $10,000-plus price tags for schools and families.

In fact, the committee of special education advocates and school leaders postponed potentially major changes — a move that is a relief to some parent advocates, who feared changes could create barriers that discourage families from filing, but doesn’t immediately satisfy school administrators’ cost concerns.

The final recommendations, released last week, call on lawmakers to invest more money into existing disability advocacy groups and curate resources for families. They sidestepped the thornier issues, such as whether nondisclosure agreements should continue to be allowed as part of settlements — recommending, instead, that lawmakers create a subcommittee to weigh this and other controversial ideas.

Indiana’s system for handling these disagreements, which typically arise when a parent feels their child with special needs is being denied needed services, is meant to be faster, cheaper, and more cooperative than court. The state brings in a trained third-party to oversee a hearing and decide what services a student is legally entitled to receive

But the reality is often a time- and paperwork-intensive process — and one that can be a financial burden for both schools and families, which have reported shelling out thousands of dollars, largely for attorneys fees. State data shows few due process complaints are resolved within the federally mandated 45-day window.

Discussions surrounding changing the process have repeatedly reached a stalemate as lawmakers attempt to balance cutting costs with protecting parent’s legal right to file a due process claim. Meanwhile schools and parents often disagree about whether the current system is working, with schools saying it drains money from the classrooms and parent advocates insisting that the high percentage of complaints settled without a hearing is a positive indicator.

The Education Dispute Resolution Working group was created after Republican Rep. Bob Behning, Chairman of the House Education Committee, introduced a bill that proposed having parents pay some of the school’s legal fees if they lost their case. The language was meant to cut costs for schools, but was ultimately removed after it received backlash from special education parents and advocates.

The committee voted to remove the fee-shifting idea when it resurfaced in the first draft of recommendations as a topic for further study. It was purposefully left out of the list of topics lawmakers assigned the group to discuss, said Tom Chrishon an attorney at Indiana Disability Rights, which offers legal support to people with disabilities.

Also scrapped was a recommendation that schools and families stop using nondisclosure agreements so the public can see the details of the settlement, including how much the district agreed to pay for a student’s services.

Instead the group added the question about nondisclosure agreements to the list of topics for the potential subcommittee to tackle. They also suggested the subgroup study whether the state should add an appeals board so appealed cases wouldn’t go straight to federal court, and that it determine how to create a survey to collect more consistent data on due process filings.

Committee member Brandi Wetherald, a parent of a special education student who has filed a due process complaint, said she was happy with shifting these ideas to a subcommittee because it will give parent advocates more time to organize and gather information. Wetherald has been among the committee members who contend that the current process is not broken, but that it could be more transparent for parents.

“It’s been an emotional process for me,” she said. “At the end of the day I was happy … it was the first time that I felt like the parent perspective was listened to.”

However, Wetherald said she was “concerned and disappointed” that the group didn’t recommend ways schools cut spending on these complaints. The conversation was too focused on what parents and parent attorneys are doing wrong, rather than what schools could do differently, she said.

Committee member Angie Balsley, president-elect of Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education, said some of the recommendations likely will help reduce costs by increasing support for parent resources that can help them resolve issues before it escalates into a due process complaint.

The group recommended the state increase funding for two groups that provide free legal support to families of children with special needs, InSource and Indiana Disability Rights. An additional $250,000 would allow Indiana Disability Rights to hire two full-time education advocates and a full-time education attorney, according to the recommendation.

They’re also calling on lawmakers to approve more training for the hearing officers, who make the final decision if the district and parents are unable to settle, and an evaluation that includes whether they respond to parties quickly and fill out paperwork on time.

Balsley said the state should continue to look at the cost of due process, and “how taxpayer’s dollars are spent for our children.” But overall she said she is happy with what the group accomplished.

“There’s more work that needs to be done,” she said. “But we needed a starting point and I feel like this is really a starting point.”

The recommendations are set to be discussed by the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

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