DRO Seeks to Intervene in Warren County Special Education Litigation, Urges Dismissal

Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) this week waded further into a dispute between the Warren County Educational Service Center (ESC) and Ohio Department of Education and Workforce (DEW) over alleged special education law violations and corrective actions ordered by the state.

DRO, a nonprofit designated by the state to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, had filed a complaint with DEW, alleging systemic violations of special education law at the Warren County ESC. DEW investigated and issued corrective action plans, but then reconsidered its action following pushback from the ESC. DRO followed up by filing for due process review of DEW’s actions, arguing DEW improperly reversed itself and in the process pulled back on some compensatory education services awarded to students. Warren County ESC then sued in Warren County Common Pleas Court, arguing DEW had no authority to accept the systemic complaint from DRO and saying the alleged violations resulted from parents’ choices to place their students in a program focused mostly on mental health services. (See The Hannah Report, 2/20/24, 2/22/24.)

Judge Timothy Tepe has issued a temporary restraining order to prevent DEW from enforcing corrective action plans while he considered both the ESC’s request for an injunction and the state’s motion to dismiss. Now, DRO is asking to be admitted as an intervening party to the case and also urging Tepe to dismiss the case. DRO filed on behalf of the family of a minor identified as D.H., a student who has autism and who, according to DRO’s motion, lost about three quarters of the compensatory service hours he’d initially been awarded after DEW reconsidered its actions against the ESC.

In its dismissal motion, DRO argues the court is required to dismiss the case because the ESC is obligated to exhaust administrative appeals under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state law before going to court.

“DEW’s state complaint procedures do not include a mechanism to appeal OEC’s [the Office of Exceptional Children’s] findings through the state complaint process. Instead, a party who disagrees with the findings may request mediation/facilitation or file for a due process hearing under IDEA’s and Ohio’s procedural safeguards for parents and students with disabilities … rather than avail itself of a due process hearing, over the course of 2022, WCESC [Warren County Educational Service Center] and a limited number of school districts sought to circumvent the process by threatening DEW with litigation regarding the findings and corrective action plans and requesting appeals or ‘reconsiderations’ that are expressly prohibited in DEW’s published state complaint procedures,” DRO’s motion to dismiss states.

“The WCESC seems to be doing everything BUT following DEW’s corrective action plans and taking the steps necessary to address the inadequacies we uncovered,” said Kristin Hildebrant, DRO senior attorney and education team leader, in a statement. “This lawsuit would not only prevent the parents of students with disabilities from exercising their rights to complain about poor education services at the WCESC, but also prohibit DEW from implementing any corrective action at WCESC, thereby depriving students of necessary services and supports to address their disability related needs.”

“It is most unfortunate that we are forced to spend time in court, rather than working together to ensure students with disabilities receive the best possible educational opportunities,” said DRO Executive Director Kerstin Sjoberg in a statement. “The time for all parties to comply with those laws designed to give students an appropriate education in the least restrictive setting is long overdue.”

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on March 20, 2024.  Copyright 2024 Hannah News Service, Inc.