State officials says special education is a ‘core priority.’ Parents and advocates beg to differ.

State officials says special education is a ‘core priority.’ Parents and advocates beg to differ.
The Virginia Department of Education is headquartered in the James Monroe Building in Richmond. (Source: Virginia Mercury)

Cheryl Poe has spent more than a decade as an advocate for students with disabilities in Virginia. She said she immediately identified with a recent report from the federal Department of Education, which found systemic problems with how the Virginia Department of Education oversees special education.

But when she read the state’s response — a 10-page letter from Samantha Hollins, the assistant superintendent of special education and student services — she said she couldn’t even muster up disappointment.

“I wasn’t disappointed because I expected them to put out that false propaganda type of statement,” Poe said. “But she’s totally incorrect when she talks about the idea that there were only a few people who experienced this.”

The June 23 report outlined serious deficiencies in how VDOE responds to reported violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — better known as IDEA — a 1975 federal law that ensures a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities and guarantees special education services.

After receiving what the federal education officials described as an “unusually high number” of concerns about Virginia’s complaint resolution process, officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs found that the state agency consistently failed to supervise local school districts and adequately resolve complaints from parents and advocates.

The lengthy letter details deficiencies in multiple areas, including general supervision — VDOE’s onsite monitoring program only inspects between four to six of Virginia’s 132 local school districts every year, according to the report — and ensuring complaints are addressed within federally regulated time limits. VDOE has no mechanism for addressing reported issues outside its formal complaint process, according to the report, which parents say is a time-consuming and often expensive endeavor that can require attorneys or advocates familiar with special education law.

Neither Hollins nor Virginia Superintendent James Lane responded to an initial interview request from the Mercury to discuss the report soon after it was released. Hollins was again “not available” on Friday, according to VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle, who referred back to her June 19 response letter.

There, Hollins described multiple parts of the report as “categorically false,” writing that federal DOE staff had yet to share the “unusually high” number of communications that led to its investigation. “The previous information shared by VDOE points to a very limited and specific set of constituent calls that prompted the onsite monitoring and the findings in OSEP’s letter,” she added. 

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.