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: