Feds open civil rights investigation of Portland Public Schools

File photo of child in classroom (KATU News).png

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is opening an investigation into a complaint that Portland Public Schools (PPS) is sending special education students home earlier than other students.

Last spring, the Beaverton School District reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office to rearrange bus schedules to make sure special education students could stay in class for the full school day.

But that didn’t bring any changes for Vanessa Smith's child, who goes to special education classes at PPS.

“The more help he's getting, the more he's learning,” says Smith, who also happens to be a special education teacher. “And everybody else's kids get to stay in school until the end of the day so I didn't understand why my son wasn't being able to stay in school the entire school day.”

Attorney Diane Wiscarson, who filed the first complaint against the Beaverton School District last school year and filed the current complaint against Portland schools in July, says PPS was doing exactly what she found Beaverton Schools doing.

“I would see a class of kids come out, get on the bus and leave and so I started saying, 'Well, what's going on? Why are those kids leaving?' 'Oh, the special ed buses, they leave early,’ Wiscarson said.

Wiscarson said that adds up to about 15 hours less of class time every school year for each special education student.

“These are already only students who have individualized education programs because they need them, and they're losing educational time,” Wiscarson explained.

PPS released a statement Wednesday, saying in part, "PPS has a legal obligation to provide students with disabilities with the same length of school day as provided to non-disabled peers... We have specifically communicated that policy to school staff in the past and will be doing so again in the near future."

Smith worries other districts may be doing the same thing with special education students in their schools.

“I mean it happened in Beaverton, it happened in Portland, it's probably happening all over and it really just needs to stop,” Smith said.

The federal investigation into what Beaverton Schools were doing took several months before the district reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office.

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