A Jackson County mother is challenging the state Department of Education’s handling of a dispute over special education services involving her emotionally disabled son — and the U.S. Department of Education is listening.
Lori Roy filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against the MDE in December alleging that the state agency failed to properly investigate her complaint against the Jackson County School District, and subsequently retaliated against her by ruling in favor of the school system when she raised concerns about the agency’s process.
“The MDE does not comment on issues that are under investigation,” said Jean Cook, a spokeswoman for the MDE.
During its review, the OCR will act as a neutral fact finder. A website explaining the investigation process for the OCR explains, “opening an allegation for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to its merit.
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The OCR does not disclose the identity of complainants, but Roy gave the Clarion Ledger permission to use her name.
Roy says she turned to the MDE after the Jackson County School District allegedly denied her 13-year-old son the right to a free and appropriate education, which is protected under a federal law for children with disabilities.
Roy’s son has an emotional disability that causes extreme anxiety. At times, she says, his condition has caused him to break out in hives from stress.
Roy’s husband is in the Air Force, and the family relocated to Mississippi from Colorado in 2015.
Her son’s previous school, she said, dedicated a set amount of time per week for him to receive counseling and to work with a behavioral interventionist as part of his individualized education plan (IEP).
IEPs act as a legal contract between the school system and the child receiving services.
When a student transfers to a new school, the child’s new school should offer comparable services to their current IEP until a new IEP is put in place, according to federal guidelines.
Roy says when she enrolled her son in Jackson County schools, the district initially deferred to the plan that was crafted for her son in Colorado that outlined counseling sessions.
Toward the end of her son’s first year, however, the district removed them.
A document from the Jackson County School District states that Roy was aware that the district’s behavioral specialist “would be providing counseling services on a weekly basis under the behavior intervention plan in lieu of formal counseling, and understood and agreed with that approach as reflected by her signature on both the IEP and BIP. There was no clandestine change to the IEP as the complainant seemed to imply.”
Roy alleges that changes were made without her consent and says the visits between her son and the behavioral interventionist were sporadic.
In September, Roy filed an administrative complaint with the MDE against the district.
In response, the MDE launched an investigation on Sept. 13.
She says the agency never interviewed her son during its review and was reluctant to talk to her about her family’s experience.
Roy provided a self-documented timeline for the Clarion Ledger to review, detailing multiple attempts to schedule an interview. On several dates, she notes that she felt her concerns were brushed off and that she rarely had the opportunity to speak with someone in the MDE’s Office of Special Education apart from the receptionist.
“I do feel like I was ignored,” she said.
In December, the MDE informed Roy that it found no evidence of wrongdoing by the district.
Roy believes her complaints affected the outcome of her son’s case.
The agency’s decision prompted Roy to file a complaint with the OCR. She also decided to request a due process hearing with the school district.
Due process hearings are one path for parents to resolve disputes with a school about their child’s education.
An impartial hearing officer listens to evidence from a family and a school and then issues a decision about how to resolve the conflict.
The hearing concluded on Friday and Roy is still waiting for the results.
“I can’t speak to that case specifically,” said Jackson County Superintendent Barry Amacker.
“As a district for all of our students, we provide awesome education services for our kids. We reach out in every way possible to address every need that they have.”
As of Jan. 12, according to the OCR, there are 30 pending disability discrimination investigations.