Palo Alto Unified School District’s decision to close two classrooms for students with moderate-to-severe disabilities and move the students to other school campuses has triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), according to a letter from attorneys representing students in the program and their parents.
The investigation is in response to the district's Feb. 6 announcement that it would be closing two moderate-to-severe classrooms at Ohlone and Escondido elementary schools and moving the students to Nixon and Barron Park elementary schools in the 2023-2024 school year. Currently, the four schools each have one class for students of all grade levels with moderate to severe disabilities.
The closure on the two campuses would result in two classes each at Nixon and Barron Park: one for students in second grade or younger and a second for the third- through fifth-graders. The district's moderate/severe programs currently taught at Fairmeadow, El Carmelo and Walter Hays elementary schools are not affected and will continue.
But parents contend the closures are discriminatory and prevent the students from accessing choice schools. Escondido has a Spanish dual-immersion choice program. Ohlone has an "open school" philosophy and a working farm on campus. Parents have said they never had any input on the decision to close the classes.
District Superintendent Don Austin said in a text message on Friday, May 26, that splitting the classes along grade levels "has been recommended for many years predating my arrival. The programmatic change … better serve(s) kids throughout our district. The benefit of grade-appropriate settings isn't really in question."
Austin said the district wouldn't comment on the OCR complaint at this time.
On May 4, representatives from The Youth & Education Law Project at the Stanford Law School, which is representing the complainant, and the district met with an OCR mediator to try to settle the complaint and avoid an OCR investigation, but the negotiation was unsuccessful.
In a May 15 letter, attorneys for the complainant asked the district to keep Room 19, which serves students with moderate-to-severe disabilities at Ohlone school, open until the conclusion of the investigation.
They contend that OCR will find that the classroom closures are discriminatory under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits exclusion ro denial of benefits from any program or activity that receives federal assistance.
Although the section doesn't contain a formal “stay put” provision, the complaint is akin to a provision in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which mandates that children remain in their “current educational placement” pending the outcome of a due process complaint.
"It is our position that the District’s closure of Room 19 constitutes unlawful discrimination and that OCR will arrive at the same conclusion. If this is the case, the Ohlone Room 19 students will have to transition schools twice in the span of a few months," the letter stated.
"Room 19 students have moderate-to-severe disabilities, which make transitions incredibly difficult. Forcing them to transition twice in the span of several months will disrupt their entire school year and make it difficult for them to make meaningful educational progress in the 2023-24 school year.
"Therefore, the District has an obligation as a flagship educational institution to take precautions to protect Ohlone’s Room 19 students by keeping Room 19 open until the conclusion of the OCR investigation," the letter stated.