CMS Investigated For Civil Rights Complaints Regarding Disabilities

Aug 23, 2019

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is the subject of twelve current investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. According to the Charlotte Observer, complaints in those cases accuse the district of violating the civil rights of students with disabilities or special needs. 

The Charlotte Observer's Annie Ma joined WFAE's Lisa Worf to talk about her reporting. 

Worf: What kind of complaints are we talking about here?  

Ma: The federal Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights and Disability is a protected class under a number of federal statutes. When a student, or a parent, or a teacher, or someone in a school system feels that a student's civil rights under those protections are being violated, they can initiate a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, which then will look into those complaints and gather facts and see whether or not the district broke any of those statutes and didn't live up to their promises to students. So that's what we're looking at in CMS and, as you said, there are currently 12 open cases and there are 12 past cases since 2013 that have resulted in corrective action or monitoring from OCR.

Worf: What do we know about the current cases they're investigating?

Ma: We don't know a lot about the current cases. DOE is pretty under wraps about what they say about them. We just know the date that they started, the statute that is allegedly the one that's been violated, and which district it's in. You can search by all the districts and in CMS there are twelve. So, as far as we know, we just know that there are twelve of them.

Worf: You highlight the case of an 11-year-old girl whose doctor says she has trouble walking and suffers more seizures because of injuries at Blythe Elementary School. What happened in that instance? 

Ma: In that instance Mackenzie's family is not one of the federal complaints. It was just her case led us to finding all of these complaints. But, in that case, Mackenzie is an 11-year-old girl with autism. She is in special ed classes at Blythe and in October of 2018 she was bitten by a student in her class. Her mother became concerned when what the district was telling her didn't really align with the severity of Mackenzie's injuries and a number of incidents unfolded over the course of a few weeks that left her mother Winifred feeling like her daughter was unsafe. After that happened in October and November, she pulled her daughter from school. This is where the accommodations part comes in is that her doctors place Mackenzie on what is called "homebound status" which is where teachers will come to the student's home to provide educational services at home. But her mother alleges that those services were never provided except for a stack of worksheets that she didn't get till the end of the year. So that is the allegation in Mackenzie's case. 

Worf: And, again, Mackenzie's mother did not file a complaint, but this is an example of what a complaint might look like or be over.

Ma: Yeah. Mackenzie's case is not one of the ones that was a complaint, but since her story's been published we've heard a lot from parents who said that they've gone through similar cases -  some of whom are the ones who filed OCR complaints and some of whom did not know about the OCR process until our story came out.

Worf: Those twelve cases that ended in citation, what do you know about those?

Ma: A lot of them involved the district allegedly not following through with a student's Individualized Education Plan or giving them the accommodations they needed. One of those cases said that the district told the family that they were limited to 10 hours of homebound instruction and they cited state law. I personally haven't been able to find a state law that says that. And then the federal government came in and said that the point of these plans is that they're individualized and that you shouldn't be using a blanket limit of 10 hours a month or 10 hours a week and you should be meeting the student's needs. So a lot of it has to do with whether or not the district is sufficiently evaluating what each student should be getting and whether they're following through with that documentation and those promises.

Worf: So do we know if 12 citations over six years is a lot for a district this size?

Ma: It's hard to compare district to district because there are so many avenues for making complaints. I will say that we asked OCR for the number of current open investigations. There are 12 into CMS and we asked for the number in Wake County, which is the largest district in the state, and Wake currently has seven. Those are just two points in time, but it did strike me that a dozen seems like a lot of cases, but it's hard to say definitively what that means.

Worf: So I understand that the CMS board did not respond to you at the time that the article was published. Was there any response from CMS?

Ma: Yes. So we sent a list of very extensive questions to the district. They didn't answer a lot of them because they are bound by student privacy and can't really comment on individual cases. We also had a chance to sit down with Superintendent Earnest Winston, who acknowledged that there are gaps in CMS's system and he was very emphatic about caring about the outcomes of individual students. But in terms of what is going on with the federal monitoring process, we didn't get a lot of specifics.

Worf: There was a back-to-school press conference our reporter Ann Doss Helms was able to grab school board member Margaret Marshall and she said she was disappointed the parent had a situation where they felt like this.

Margaret Marshall: It's incredibly hard to do this job. It's incredibly hard for these families and these teachers to do all the right things. But we've got a lot of people doing all the right things every day. So I don't see a chaotic environment in this situation.

Worf: What kind of challenges are there for a district to accommodate special needs and disabilities?

Ma: Accommodations are expensive and I think that is something that comes into play. A lot of times students have divergent needs and it's difficult to serve all that entire range within special needs classrooms and within general education when you're trying to integrate students into that. You know, we call them IEPs, individualized education plans, because these are students who need individualized attention. And it's not hard to imagine that for any district it is really challenging to provide that when you have so many students who need so many different things.