With more public charter schools, including internet-based charter schools, becoming more readily available to students it is essential for all school settings to be in compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a recent case, the U.S. Department of Education revealed that the Office of Civil Rights entered into an agreement with a virtual school in Ohio in order to ensure compliance with these laws. This first-of-its-kind resolution promises equal access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities in virtual charter schools across the nation.
According to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, students with disabilities who attend online public charter schools are entitled to all the protections of the federal civil rights laws that their peers receive at traditional public schools, including the right to receive a free appropriate education. Online schools also must take steps to ensure that the websites and online classrooms they use to promote their services and to educate students are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) initiated a compliance review in 2011 to assess whether the school discriminates against students with disabilities by failing to ensure that they receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE). OCR also examined whether individuals with disabilities are provided an equal opportunity to access the school's website and on-line learning environment.
This investigation identified compliance problems with the evaluation and placement procedures used by the school to identify students with disabilities under Section 504 and to determine their individual education needs and the services necessary to provide them an appropriate education.
It was also found that the school did not provide procedural safeguards for students with disabilities relating to identification, evaluation and placement under Section 504; did not publish contact information for the employee designated to coordinate its efforts to comply with Section 504 and Title II; and did not adopt and publish disability grievance procedures, as required under Section 504 and Title II.
The office also determined that the school utilized a website and an on-line learning environment that are not accessible to individuals with disabilities, particularly those who are blind, have low vision, or have other disabilities, such as learning disabilities that substantially limit their ability to access printed materials.
Under the agreement, the school committed to take specific actions to ensure that it is providing a FAPE to students with disabilities, as well as an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in the school’s web-based education program. The agreement provides that the school will:
•Develop Section 504 policies and procedures so that students with disabilities are appropriately identified, evaluated, , and provided services to ensure they receive a FAPE;
•Notify parents, guardians, and students of the revised Section 504 policies and procedures;
•Evaluate or reevaluate students with disabilities enrolled in the last two years to determine whether they need compensatory special education and/or related aids or services and, based on this evaluation, promptly provide compensatory services;
•Publish contact information for the school's Section 504/Title II coordinator and ensure that the coordinator is appropriately trained;
•Develop and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of disability discrimination complaints;
•Provide training to staff involved in the evaluation and placement of students with disabilities;
•Develop policies and procedures to ensure that the school's online technologies are accessible, including the adoption of technical standards to ensure accessibility;
•Revise its website and on-line learning environment so that they are accessible to individuals with disabilities, including students with visual, hearing, or print disabilities and those who otherwise require use of assistive technology to access the school's program;
•Monitor the accessibility of the school's online technologies; and
•Provide annual training for staff responsible for online technologies about the school's accessibility policies and procedures and their roles and responsibilities in ensuring online content is accessible.