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Special-Ed Ombudsman Could Help Parents Get Answers, Settle Disputes

Senate bill would create office that could serve as an information clearinghouse for families with special-needs kids

Diane Allen (NEW)
Sen. Diane B. Allen (R-Burlington), sponsor of the "Right to Try Act."

Parents’ rights and support services for special education are coming in for a great deal of attention these days. The latest proposal: create a formal ombudsman within the state Department of Education to help families find information they need and give them someone to address their concerns.

A bill passed unanimously by the state Senate this week would do exactly that. The ombudsman, as envisioned by the legislation cosponsored by state Sens. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), would serve as a central clearinghouse for families in what can be a tenuous and sometimes tumultuous relationship with schools.

Allen said yesterday that she hears from families of special-needs students all the time about the services available – or not – in their districts, and she finds her own office calling the department for information.

“It just seems that while I can make the call, everybody should have the same ability as a senator does to get answers,” Allen said. “This is not meant to throw arrows at anybody, but here’s a way that everybody should be able to get answers.”

The bill has been approved by the state Assembly’s education committee and is awaiting final vote in that chamber.

The rights and roles of parents in special education are always a hot topic, and it is a central subject in the new report from a state task force on special education. In its series of recommendations released in November, the task force suggested several steps for strengthening and training the local parent-advisory boards that are required for every district.

At the same time, the task force also cites the state’s high incidence of formal disputes between families and schools over special-education services, one that can be expensive both financially and emotionally.

While Allen was a sponsor of the law creating the task force as well, she said the ombudsman bill is separate from the group’s recommendations. She is not explicitly calling for the hiring of additional staff for the department and hopes it could be handled with existing resources.

And she said it would not seek to replace the state’s role in mediating and resolving specific disputes, one that ultimately can end up in the courts. But the bill does call for the ombudsman to serve a “neutral” role between families and schools, and help families work through disagreements with districts.

“If you have a dispute, and this gives you information to help that, then that should be a way to go, too,” Allen said.

In to the language of the bill, the specific functions of the ombudsman would be as follows:

  • to serve as a source of information regarding state and federal laws and regulations governing special education;

  • to provide information and support to parents of students with disabilities in navigating and understanding the process for obtaining special-education evaluations and services;

  • to provide information and communication strategies to parents and school districts for resolving disagreements concerning special-education issues, and to educate parents on the available options for resolving such disputes;

  • to work neutrally and objectively with all parties to help ensure that a fair process is followed and that the special-education system functions equitably and as intended;

  • to identify any patterns of complaints that emerge regarding special-education rights and services, and to recommend strategies for improvement to the Department of Education;

  • to assist the department in creating public information programs that educate parents and the public about the ombudsman’s duties; and

  • to serve as a resource for disability-related information and referrals to other available programs and services for individuals with disabilities, including early intervention and transition to adult life.

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