On September 30, 2022, a Colorado district court ruled that a school district (District) denied a student a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) because the District failed to implement an IEP by failing to use qualified individuals to provide special education services. (Denver Public Schools Colorado State Educational Agency, (2022) 122 LRP 39748; Note that this decision is not binding on California but provides an example of how the IDEA may be interpreted under similar circumstances.)
Student was a seventh grader who qualified for special education and related services under the disability categories of Autism and Other Health Impairment. Just prior to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, Student’s assigned teacher resigned. The District replaced the teacher with a long term substitute who held a valid special education credential and was knowledgeable regarding Student’s IEP. However, the long-term substitute unexpectedly resigned after less than a month.
The District “scrambled” to find a replacement. In the meantime, Student’s class was covered by other special education teachers during their planning periods and general education teachers. These teachers were provided summaries of the applicable IEPs, but admittedly did not know them enough to provide the required instruction and services. Moreover, the District was unable to staff the class with the required number of paraprofessionals.
In November, the school’s assistant principal began covering the class. Despite being a special education teacher, her license had expired. She reviewed Student’s IEP and the school followed it “to the best of [School’s] ability with the staff that we had.” The class was taught by a combination of an unlicensed student teacher and the assistant principal for the remainder of the school year.
The District acknowledged their difficulty staffing Student’s class and offered each student compensatory services. However, the parties were never able to agree to an amount. Student’s guardian then filed a complaint.
All Local Educational Agencies (LEA) are required to implement a student’s IEP in its entirety. 34 C.F.R. § 300.323. To do so, teachers and other service providers are required to be knowledgeable of “his or her specific responsibilities related to implementing the child’s IEP,” as well as the specific “accommodations, modifications, and supports that must be provided for the child in accordance with the IEP.” Id. Moreover, those teachers are required to be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained . . . to serve children with disabilities.” 34 C.F.R. § 300.156.
Here, the hearing officer found that six teachers had worked in Student’s classroom during the course of the 2021-2022 school year. Despite each having access to Student’s IEP, all but the first teacher and the long term substitute had any substantive knowledge of the IEP and its requirements. Moreover, several of the teachers who served the class were not appropriately qualified. Based on this the hearing officer found that the District failed to provide student FAPE.
Staffing issues have become an increasingly difficult challenge for LEAs. The hearing officer noted that “the staffing shortage may have been out of the District’s control. However, the IDEA does not excuse a District’s failure to implement an IEP or other noncompliance based on staffing shortages.”
Some options to consider to address this challenge are utilizing contractors, conferring with other special education administrators regarding solutions, negotiating hiring bonuses and other hiring incentives, and/or negotiating additional bonuses or compensation for existing staff.
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