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Lee School District one of 65 under investigation

By Staff | Jun 9, 2009

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is conducting an investigation of whether officials from the Lee County School District intimidate parents who question district policies.
Sixty-five of the 67 school districts in Florida are currently under investigation for allegedly denying basic civil rights outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Now, the OCR is turning its attention towards whether parents and teachers who question district practices are receiving harsh retaliations.
Catherine Cannivet, co-founder of Collier ESE Reform, said the federal office is now looking for complaints from Florida parents and teachers on whether they have been threatened or intimidated. Lee County is reportedly one of the districts under investigation.
“The retaliation is swift and severe,” said Cannivet. “Retaliation is a big problem and there are various ways they retaliate.”
Cannivet said the worst instances of parent retaliation occur in Georgia and Florida.
Cape Coral resident Karen Taylor is the parent of a student in the Lee County School District. She also worked for the district and believes she lost her job as a bus driver because she objected to the handling of her son’s individualized education plan (IEP).
She claims that district officials redrafted her son’s IEP without including her in the process and when she questioned what happened, the district fired her. Taylor’s personnel file stated that she was fired for making threatening comments and exhibiting strong attitudes.
“I am angry. I know there are a lot of other parents out there. People have contacted me,” said Taylor. “This is retaliation against the kids and parents.”
The Florida Department of Education investigated what happened to Taylor’s son and sided with her. It asked the school district to create another IEP for her son, although Taylor said that the DOE’s ruling was equivalent to a slap on the wrist.
A letter from the OCR, dated April 24, stated it wouldn’t investigate further whether her son was discriminated against because the issue had already been taken up by another governmental agency — the Florida Department of Education. On the other hand, OCR stated it would investigate whether Taylor lost her job for advocating on behalf of her son.
The office added that the investigation doesn’t imply that any determination has been made in regard to the merits of Taylor’s allegation.
According to Cannivet, districts statewide are also failing to inform parents and students about their rights.
Federal law requires schools to report to every parent what rights they have and what the district’s responsibility is in providing those rights. They also must inform parents that if they question a school policy or ruling, they can file for a due process hearing. In many cases, advocates claim, these rights are not being explained to parents.
“What we discovered in our district (Collier), we discovered is going on across the state,” said Cannivet. “It basically has to do with the denial of disabled public school student’s civil rights and disability rights under federal law.”
The Florida Civil Rights Act doesn’t apply to public schools, she said, and the state has no agency in charge of the oversight relating to schools and compliance with these laws.
“You end up with a federally funded discrimination in our public schools,” she said. “That is what we have in Florida.”
If a problem is identified, the OCR can individually enter into resolution agreements with each of the state’s 67 school districts or the Florida Legislature can create one uniform policy or law that applies to every county.
Three counties have already entered into resolution agreements with the OCR — including Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Collier — but Cannivet said that a statewide policy is far more effective in securing the civil rights of every student. She explained that Collier recently violated its 2008 resolution agreement and its investigation has been reopened.
“Other states have passed laws delegating enforcement and monitoring of ADA compliance, but Florida is a state that doesn’t have a law designating anybody to monitor school compliance,” said Cannivet.