to School on Civil Rights
Grassroots Perspectives on Noncompliance and Federal Enforcement of
A. Obstacles Experienced
by Students with Disabilities & Their
Almost a quarter century following the passage
of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), students with disabilities
and their families still commonly face obstacles to securing the free
appropriate public education (FAPE) that the law promises. The impact
of noncompliance with IDEA is difficult to overestimate. Every Parent
Training and Information (PTI) center in the country hears daily about
the toll taken on students whose educational and related services needs
are not being met and on the parents who expend incredible amounts of
energy advocating for basic access to educational programs for their
children. Appendix B provides a general list of the obstacles faced
by students with disabilities and their families that were intended
to be addressed by IDEA. Problems in all of these areas persist today.
The experience of many parents gives the
impression that compliance with the law is the exception rather than
the rule. Parents frequently face repeated challenges year after year,
sometimes throughout the entire elementary and secondary educational
experience of the child. The stress of working with a recalcitrant school
system that appears to not want to work with a parent to educate a disabled
child can be tremendous. The recent controversy over the discipline
provisions in IDEA has fueled special education cases related to suspension
and expulsion of students.
The following situations are examples of
what many students and families in this country experience when working
with special education systems. These experiences demonstrate that even
the most basic promises of the law are too often not being met.
1. Noncompliance with Least
In California, a first-grade student with
significant mental impairments was placed in the regular classroom for
the full day. The school district thought that the placement was wrong
for the student and claimed that she was not receiving academic benefit
from her placement. In addition, the district held that the girl's presence
had a detrimental effect on her teacher and classmates. A hearing officer
determined that the regular classroom was indeed the correct placement
for the girl and outlined approp riate supports that had to be provided.
The school district appealed the decision. Eventually the girl's family
moved to a neighboring district and enrolled the child in a regular
education class there, where she is doing well.
In another situation, in Indiana, a student
who is blind sought to attend his local school. The school district
required the child to travel 25 miles away from home to a residential
school for the blind to receive the educational services he needed.
A hearing officer determined that the child must be served in his home
school, which is the least restrictive environment. The school district
has appealed the ruling.
In New Jersey, a very bright elementary-age
child with dyslexia was in a resource room several periods a day. In
more than two years she had not shown progress in reading. Her parents
sought training for the teachers on how to best instruct children with
dyslexia in reading. The school system responded by seeking to place
the child in a self-contained classroom. The school contended that it
teaches all children to read by the same method. The parents prevailed
in court and were awarded instructional compensation for the child over
These situations, all related to the "least
restrictive environment" mandate, persist case after case and year after
year despite repeated rulings for integrated placements. In one of the
best known cases, Rachel Holland and her family spent five years fighting
in court for her right to be educated in a regular classroom. The school
district in California insisted that Rachel, then a seven-year-old girl
with mental retardation, be educated in a separate special education
classroom. Her parents held that she should be educated in a regular
classroom with support. In 1992, the district court ordered an aide
and special education consultant to work part-time with Rachel's teacher
and held that she should be placed in a regular classroom. The school
district appealed this decision all the way to the Supreme Court, which
declined to hear the case, thus affirming the lower court's decision.
Rachel and her parents were engaged in pursuing their child's right
to an integrated education for more than five years. For two of those
years, they were in a position of defending against appeals by the school
system. During the pendency of the case, the Hollands placed Rachel
in a regular private school, at their own expense, where she was in
a regular classroom with supports. She continues to thrive today in
a regular public education classroom.
2. Noncompliance with Free
Appropriate Public Education
A special education student in East Palo
Alto, California, Empris Carter, is not receiving the education and
related services she requires. She and her family are embroiled in a
lawsuit with the school district over her services. She may be speaking
for many of the nation's special education students as she reflects
on her situation as follows:
Early in the game I discovered
that many of my teachers felt that I was a nice, respectful, and intelligent
young girl. However, they had some doubts about my capabilities and
immediately began to label and set limits on my future role in society.
Instead of helping me to find ways to learn, they moved me to a special
class where kids were not expected to learn. I would get angry about
their doubts and my self-esteem was low. My mother would fight back
with encouraging words and my self-esteem would rise again. After being
encouraged by mother's words, I again realized that I am the key person
in my future.
Saundra Lemmons, a 17-year-old high school
student and basketball champion in Washington, DC, told her story to politicians
in February 1999.
Learning comes easy for some and is more
difficult for others. Education plays a major role in everyone's future.
I, Empris Carter, have a place in the future. In order for me to function
properly and be able to contribute something positive to our society,
I, too, must have the opportunity to receive the best education possible.
Lemmons was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded
in the first grade and for years was improperly placed. While she has
language processing problems, she never received speech and language
therapy. Teachers allowed her to pass from grade to grade as "a gift."
Finally, during the 1998-99 school year, Lemmons began receiving speech
and language therapy. She hopes to play basketball in college, but fears
that her low academic skills will prevent her from succeeding in life.
After 12 years in special education, she has reached only a fourth-grade
reading level. "The school system has not given me what I needed," she
said. "I feel as though no one really cares. If they did care, I would
be reading a lot better," she added.
Cases related to suspension and expulsion
are increasing. In New Jersey, a middle school student was receiving
special education because of multiple disabilities, including behavior
problems. After an incident in the classroom where the child threw something
(not harming anyone) and tipped over a chair, the child was suspended
and then expelled and placed on home instruction. The child is currently
in a self-contained setting in a different school district. The child
did not have a behavioral plan as part of his Individualized Education
Program (IEP), nor has he had a functional behavioral assessment.
In Delaware, parents successfully challenged a school district's failure
to provide special education services to students with disabilities
who are expelled.
Parents have a reasonable expectation that
the federal and state agencies charged with monitoring and enforcement
will do their jobs. But as these cases demonstrate, parents throughout
the country cannot be sure that the rights of their children are protected
in school districts and states. Noncompliance in many states is still
too common, even after more than two decades of implementation.
The following section discusses the experiences
of parents and others in their roles as advocates in obtaining services
and supports under IDEA for children with disabilities.
1. Parent Advocates
Working with PTI Centers
This section highlights major themes and
concerns raised by 14 parents of children with disabilities from nine
states who were specifically interviewed for this study. A number of
these parents were also directors of Parent Training and Information
centers in their states. They were chosen because of their active involvement
with and knowledge about federal monitoring and enforcement of IDEA
in their states before 1999 and because they represented a geographic
range of states. The parents interviewed were from California, Florida,
Illinois, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas,
and Vermont. The National Council on Disability (NCD) made connections
with most parents through the network of PTIs across the country. While
this was clearly not a representative sample of parents, their insights
offered a valuable perspective on the monitoring and enforcement of
IDEA. Because several of these parents expressed concern about having
their identities disclosed in the report, NCD has chosen not to attribute
remarks to individual parents.
Their concerns were echoed by many of the
parents and others who attended the NCD-sponsored Town Meeting on Federal
Enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act sponsored
by NCD in Washington, DC, on September 22, 1999. Their comments are
highlighted to underscore concerns raised throughout this section.
Involvement and Communication with OSEP
Most of the parents interviewed commended
the current administration of OSEP for their concerted effort to solicit
information and input from parents. They cited improved coordination
and collaboration with OSEP monitors in recent years, and appreciated
the opportunity to contribute to the monitoring process. This sentiment,
however, was not shared by all parents. Several parents, especially
those at the NCD Town Meeting, expressed continued frustration over
OSEP's failure to facilitate parental input and participation.
"Parents are disenfranchised.
.... with minority parents, particularly, the information is not disseminated.
We have not been included certainly in the monitoring process in Texas.
And I'm just wondering what kind of effort is going to be made to include
those really, truly minority grassroots programs and parents working
in these communities, and visible to the school districts. They know
who we are. We're not getting the information, so it needs to come from
maybe another source other than the school district." - Parent from
Texas on the failure to involve parents, especially in minority communities,
in monitoring IDEA
Other barriers to meaningful parental involvement
in the monitoring process cited included the following:
b. Monitoring reports
- Approximately one-half of the parents
interviewed said that notification of public meetings came too late
for them to notify and organize other parents to testify. These parents
would like to be notified several months in advance of the meeting.
".....in the state of Maryland, we
were not notified of the meeting. ...The only parents that showed
up were the ones that found out secondhand." - a parent from Maryland
on the invitation to public participation in the monitoring process
- Three parents specifically mentioned
that the presence of district representatives instructed to take notes
at the public meetings heightened fears that school districts would
retaliate against their children. Several of the PTI directors underscored
this admission by commenting on parents in their states who were reluctant
to testify at the meetings for fear of retaliation.
- Parents from the rural areas said that
the burden of traveling to the meetings can be prohibitive and expressed
frustration that their school districts are commonly overlooked in
the monitoring process.
- The PTI directors reported that many
of the parents in their states were frustrated that monitoring has
not led to more comprehensive enforcement of IDEA or improvement in
the education of their children, and therefore believed that it was
a waste of time to testify at the public meetings.
i. Acquisition of reports
Our interviews found that the distribution
of final monitoring reports to parent advocates was highly inconsistent.
Some of the PTI directors interviewed said that they never received
a copy of the monitoring reports, which contributed to their feelings
of being excluded from the monitoring process and deprived of feedback.
Those who did receive the reports commended OSEP for their improved
speed of publishing and disseminating copies to parent and advocacy
ii. Quality of reports
Of the parents who did receive the monitoring
reports, many found them useful in holding their states accountable
and pressuring them to improve compliance. One parent, however, criticized
the reports as "poorly written, giving SEAs and LEAs room to discredit
the reports and the federal monitoring." She explained that the findings
of the reports are presented in a way that they "appear anecdotal and
are easily dismissed by states and districts." She was further concerned
that the organization of the monitoring reports and data were not standardized.
From her perspective, a standardized approach to presenting data in
the reports would allow a comparison of basic findings on the same requirements
for the same and different states, as well as a comprehensive national
picture of IDEA compliance, to emerge over time. The current method
of presenting data in different formats from one monitoring cycle to
the next undermines the credibility and impact of the monitoring findings.
c. Evaluating the Monitoring Process
and Corrective Action
i. "Just going through the motions"
Without exception, the parents felt that
there was no clear nexus between monitoring and enforcement. One parent
from Illinois commented:
"OSEP monitors did paint a
very accurate picture of what was going on [in the state]. But, that's
where it broke down. The same districts are cited for the same violations
year after year, and there are no consequences for noncompliance, no
incentives to do good."
This concern over the apparent lack of consequences
and enforcement as a result of the monitoring process was undeniably the
strongest and most common concern expressed by parent advocates who were
"I've turned green when somebody
says we're going to do technical assistance [to remedy noncompliance].
For 24 years this has been the law. How much technical assistance do
we do? What does it take until you get it? Our kids are only in school
until 21 but we've got 24 years of technical assistance. Come on, guys.
I want to see accountability. You deliver the mail or you don't get
the money!" - parent from Florida on the minimal impact of technical
assistance on correcting noncompliance in her state
ii. An unrepresentative picture of compliance
in rural and larger states
The PTI directors from larger or more rural
states were concerned that the design of the monitoring process, which
relies on snapshots of circumstances in a handful of schools and districts
to get a representative picture of the whole state, was less effective
in soliciting input from stakeholders or getting an accurate picture of
special education in their districts and states, and overlooked many rural
iii. Tension between federal law and
Parents in a number of states felt that
school administrators in their states and districts were hostile to
IDEA and didn't take it seriously. One parent advocate from California
explained that "simply by being there and throwing their weight around,
[the federal monitors] promote change." Other parents felt that the
monitoring visit was beneficial because it provided a model of effective
monitoring procedures for SEAs. They expressed the need for OSEP to
convey the seriousness of monitoring and compliance to the local districts.
"Noncompliance occurs at the
school site level, at the district level, and at the state level, and
if all levels are not monitoring and ensuring, it cannot fall on the
backs of parents to remedy. You have to take out some of those states
or districts and then start setting an example." - Parent from California
on the need for DoED to change its heavy reliance on parent enforcement
iv. The need for ongoing, targeted monitoring
Several of the PTI directors were concerned
that the four-year cycle employed by OSEP failed to direct the monitoring
process and resources appropriately. They suggested that it be supplemented
with, or replaced by, more ongoing and "target-driven" monitoring, an
approach OSEP is attempting to implement in its new monitoring system.
In their view, if a state is failing to ensure compliance with the law,
OSEP must continue to monitor it, applying pressure and offering assistance
until compliance is achieved. Along these lines, parents favored ongoing
monitoring, technical assistance, and follow-up visits. One parent explained,
"The federal monitors come in and say that a state or district is doing
it wrong and then they leave without providing real support or follow-up.
These states and districts need more guidance in implementing an enforcement
One parent suggested, "We need incentives
for those who are doing it right and have promising practices, and ongoing
technical assistance for those who aren't."
All of the parents NCD spoke to reported
that there was little or no parental involvement in the corrective action
plans (CAPs). One parent expressed concern that because every state
has a CAP, its potential for facilitating compliance may be significantly
limited. She explained that when her state is confronted with a report
showing noncompliance, "the first question that the state asks is how
many other states are out of compliance. When the answer is all of them,
it seriously weakens the ... incentive to do something about it."
e. The Need to Create
Most of the parents were extremely frustrated
by the lack of enforcement and skeptical as to when they would see full
implementation and enforcement of the law. Several have urged OSEP to
find a way to create sanctions that would improve accountability and
compliance. At the same time, however, they were conflicted over whether
to withhold funds. Some parents felt that it was crucial that OSEP exercise
this enforcement mechanism and put some power behind the law, while
others feared that this would only harm the students that IDEA is meant
They clearly expressed their sense of urgency
about the need to follow through:
"Currently there are no administrative
standards or accountability. Monitoring is okay, but how do we take
it to the next step? We've got to hit them in the pocketbook. There
are consequences of noncompliance for our kids, and there should be
consequences for the districts."
at the State Level
There was widespread agreement that effective
monitoring at the state level has been hindered by state reform initiatives
and budgetary cutbacks that leave SEAs with a lack of staff and resources
to perform adequate monitoring of local districts. A number of parents
felt that the Federal Government needs to convey the importance of monitoring
and enforcement to the state and local leaders and provide technical assistance
to increase compliance. A handful of parents reported that their states
conducted partial monitoring of districts that had received an unusual
number of complaints and suggested that OSEP institute this practice on
the federal level.
"There is no enforcement, no teeth. It's
like making the speed limit on the highway 55 mph but taking away
all of the police. Why do we have laws if no one is going to follow
"It's a good law, make it work!"
"Our constituency [children
with disabilities] is not a strong constituency. It is not sexy to be
for us. ....Teachers get their marching orders from principals, who
get their marching orders from boards of education who respond to state
legislatures...... It's got to be okay for a teacher to say okay, I
will take a risk. For a principal to say, I'll take a risk..... If the
state legislatures and the governors do not take that kind of stand,
I'm sorry, folks, it's not going to happen. It hasn't happened in 20
years and it's not going to happen now. .. So, ..it is a political reality
of [OSEP] approaching a legislature, of approaching governors and saying,
'Hey, guys, unless you give real credence to what we're doing, this
is not going to happen no matter how many millions of dollars we filter
down to you." - Parent from Florida on the need for OSEP to educate
state legislatures about persistent noncompliance and its impact
In recognition that the IDEA amendments of
1997 will require a concerted effort to fully implement the law and enable
federal and state monitoring to truly achieve full compliance, the National
Parent Network on Disabilities (NPND) (an organization that comprises
Parent Training and Information centers around the country) has recommended
the establishment of a "People's Monitoring and Compliance Project." This
proposed project to promote greater grassroots involvement in monitoring
would gather information about the status of monitoring, develop a report,
transmit it to the Congress and the Administration, request oversight
hearings in the Congress, request that the Secretary of Education set
up a monitoring committee to report to him or her, and establish and convene
a legal advocacy group. This project is still under development at NPND.
2. Other Parent
Some parents report situations of systemic
noncompliance. In Georgia, Linda Sheppard, the executive director of
Parents Educating Parents and Professionals, reports that at least three
counties in the state outright refuse to serve students with learning
disabilities under IDEA. She notes that despite repeated complaints,
school districts take the attitude of "go ahead and try to make me"
serve learning disabled students. Sheppard also notes that this deficiency
was cited in a federal monitoring report; however, it took the state
two years to respond to the report because extensions continued to be
granted. According to Sheppard, this lack of service to learning disabled
students has persisted for at least five years and is growing worse.
One result is students with learning disabilities are not learning to
read, are becoming frustrated, and are increasingly dropping out of
Another concern cited by Sheppard is the
racial discrimination faced by students with disabilities in southern
Georgia. She notes that children who are African-American in south Georgia
are too frequently labeled as behavior disordered or mentally retarded
and then served in separate settings. There is one program that serves
three- and four-year-old African-American children in a separate setting,
she notes. Reports from New Jersey also indicate that students with
disabilities who are racial minorities are more likely to be in separate
settings than those who are not racial minorities.
3. Advocates for Children in the Juvenile Justice System,
Minority and Rural Communities
In addition to the testimony of parents,
special education advocates attest that inappropriate placement in separate
settings and a lack of services for children with disabilities served
in regular classrooms persist in many areas. Testimony of parents at
public hearings, consultation with special education advocates serving
rural, Native American, and other minority communities around the country,
as well as studies by various government and advocacy organizations
indicate that minority students are disproportionately represented in
separate educational settings.
"...there is a very big need
on our reservation to have monitoring of our school districts. We've
made it very clear to them that we have a need, that there are problems
in our education system, and our children are not getting IDEA implemented
there. And we're told by our district people that 'yes, we agree there
is a problem.' Well, where do we go after we get the acknowledgment
and there's nothing done about it?" - a Native American parent from
Other studies find that minority children
are over-represented in institutions such as detention and correctional
facilities where access to appropriate educational services is inadequate
to nonexistent. That is especially problematic considering that 40 percent
of youth held in detention are estimated to have some form of learning
The students whose stories and situations
discussed above are just a few among many whose special education needs
were not or are not now being met in their state educational systems.
Findings and Recommendations
Finding # II.1A
The ongoing struggles of many students with disabilities, their parents,
and advocates to obtain services under IDEA leaves them with the impression
that the Federal Government is not enforcing the law effectively.
Finding # II.1B
As a result of 25 years of nonenforcement by the Federal Government,
parents are still a main enforcement vehicle for ensuring compliance
Recommendation # II.1A
The Department of Education must exercise leadership in enforcing
the law, with parents as partners and resources in carrying out their
Recommendation # II.1B
The Department of Education should publicly articulate and implement
an enforcement philosophy and plan that includes the strategic use of
litigation and administrative sanctions.
When noncompliance is not corrected within
the agreed upon time frame, the Department of Education should aggressively
enforce the law, using clearly defined appropriate sanctions to improve
accountability and achieve compliance with the law.
Finding # II.2
Parents have identified a number of obstacles to their participation
as full partners in the IDEA monitoring and enforcement processes:
Parents have not been invited consistently
to be involved in the monitoring process, and, if invited, have not
consistently been given an opportunity to be heard.
Parents are not knowledgeable enough about
either the requirements of IDEA or the monitoring and enforcement processes.
The presentation of compliance information
in the monitoring reports is inconsistent from one monitoring period
to the next, making evaluation of improvements over time difficult.
The recommendations below address how some
of these obstacles can be corrected.
Recommendation # II.2A
OSEP should encourage the involvement of students with disabilities
and their parents as resources to improve monitoring.
Parents stressed that they and their children have the "frontline"
experience and expertise with the districts in their states and would
like increased involvement in directing the monitoring process and resources
to areas of noncompliance that they have already identified.
Recommendation # II.2B
Congress should direct a change in the mission of the Protection
and Advocacy (P&A) systems and IL centers to include a priority
focus on special education advocacy, and in collaboration with the PTIs,
the development of a collaborative special education advocacy strategy
for their states.
The combined resources of PTIs, P&As,
and IL centers are needed to develop and maintain special education
advocacy services and programs statewide at a level commensurate with
the need of students with disabilities and their parents for assistance
in obtaining services and supports under IDEA, as well as participating
effectively in monitoring and enforcement.
Recommendation # II.2C
OSEP should standardize the presentation of the monitoring reports
Such standardization is essential for
accurate and credible evaluation of compliance from one monitoring period
to the next.
Part III provides a more in-depth description
and analysis of DoED's roles and responsibilities vis-a-vis the implementation
and enforcement of IDEA.
Go to Part
III-A, Grant Administration, Compliance Monitoring
Go to Part
III-B, Complaint Handling and Enforcement
Go to TOC,
IDEA Compliance Report