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Federal complaint filed against vouchers

A state advocacy group for the disabled is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Douglas County’s voucher pilot, alleging it discriminates against children with special needs.

The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People filed the complaint Monday with the department’s Civil Rights Division, citing violations of federal laws governing the treatment of students with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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“Our allegation is that parents of kids with disabilities don’t have an equal opportunity to benefit from the program,” said Randy Chapman, the center’s legal director. “The services offered by the private school partners are limited at best.”

As evidence, the center submitted applications from the 19 private schools approved for participation in the pilot by Douglas County district leaders. They show some school officials readily admitting they do not serve all students.

For example, officials at Woodlands Academy, a small private school in Castle Rock, wrote, “Serious disabilities are not best served at Woodlands, as we do not have the facilities for these students.”

And leaders from Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch stated, “We do not have a special education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant need.”

The complaint asks the department to ensure private schools participating in the pilot “give equal access to students with disabilities by enrolling them and providing services for them” or to stop implementation of the voucher plan until they do.

Dougco response: “It’s in the hands of parents”

Randy Barber, spokesman for the Douglas County School District, said 33 of the 500 students slated to participate in the voucher pilot this fall are children with special needs. He did not know the severity of their needs.

“Just like any other families that will be part of this, the family of special needs students have a choice to choose whatever program best fits their child,” he said. “It’s really up to the parent to decide, based on their child’s needs, whether or not those private schools meet those requirements.”

He pointed out that families filling out the application for the vouchers, worth $4,575 in public funds, checked a series of statements regarding their understanding of the pilot. One dealt specifically with special needs:

“I understand that participation in the Choice Scholarship Program will be viewed as a voluntary parental placement in the private school partner for the purpose of special education services. District-provided services to parentally placed students with disabilities are limited.”

So, Barber said, “Really, it’s in the hands of parents.”

Diana Oakley of Highlands Ranch, whose son Nathaniel has Aspberger’s Syndrome, is outspoken in her support for the pilot.

The voucher will help send Nathaniel, who has struggled academically and socially at his neighborhood public school, to the private Humanex Academy in Englewood, which specializes in students like him.

“Think of Nathaniel,” Oakley urged district leaders discussing the pilot at a July 12 meeting.

Complaint: Parents asked to trade rights for vouchers

In its complaint, the legal center cites Humanex and one other school as exceptions in an array of private schools ill-suited to serving students with more than mild disabilities.

Chapman argues the district is asking parents of disabled students who want a voucher to give up their rights to the services provided by federal law by entering into voluntary parental placements.

That’s because federal law requires school districts to provide certain services for children with special needs. But when a parent decides to place a disabled child in a private school, the district’s obligation to provide those services declines.

In such cases, “the only thing the district is required to provide them with is a service plan, not individual services or the same appeals processes,” Chapman said.

The legal term, defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is “parentally-placed private school children with disabilities.”

Douglas County “seeks to relieve itself from providing services to children with disabilities based on parental agreement to participate in the Choice Scholarship Program,” reads the legal center’s complaint.

“With this limit, parents of children with disabilities cannot choose to enroll their children in the Choice Scholarship Program unless they agree to give up services. In effect, parents of children with disabilities, who need more than limited services, need not apply.”