Resolution of complaints against Guilford and Vance County school systems means better services for incarcerated students with disabilities
By Tessa Hale, Staff Attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s statewide education justice project, Advocates for Children’s Services.
The first time I visited my client at Vance County Jail, an adult facility, I asked him what he did to fill his time. He told me that he did push-ups. He was just 17 years old at that time. As his education attorney, I knew that as a student who had long ago been identified as needing special education, he was entitled to an education provided by the local school district. His mother had alerted us to the fact that as he sat in jail, he had not been receiving any educational services whatsoever. At that time, this client’s case was one of three in our office in which the client had received no educational services while incarcerated in adult jail. The other two had been incarcerated in Guilford County. Our education team at Legal Aid decided to file two systemic state complaints on May 29, 2020 with the Department of Public Instruction.
We are proud to announce that the systemic state complaints Legal Aid of North Carolina filed against Guilford County Schools and Vance County Schools have recently been resolved. The Guilford County Schools complaint was resolved via confidential agreement. The Vance County complaint was resolved following an investigation by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. More information, including links to documents, follows.
Legal Aid was pleased with the opportunity to work with Guilford County Schools (GCS) to advance policies and procedures, some of which were already underway by the district, that will enable GCS to improve services for incarcerated students with disabilities by:
Reviewing and revising current procedures to require that all GCS students with disabilities incarcerated in any Guilford County jail receive appropriate special educational services;
Designating an employee to be responsible for ensuring legally compliant special educational services for students incarcerated in local jails for more than ten school days as well as continuity of educational services when the students exit from local jails;
Training special education staff regarding appropriate special educational services for incarcerated students; and
Conducting an internal audit for the 2019-2020 school year to determine whether special education services and related safeguards were properly afforded to GCS students with disabilities who were incarcerated in local jails for more than 10 school days and had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) during incarceration.
Joint statement from Legal Aid of North Carolina and Guilford County Schools Note: Because Legal Aid and GCS resolved the complaint via agreement, the N.C. Department of Investigation did not issue an investigation report.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s investigation into our complaint uncovered widespread violations of the rights of incarcerated students with disabilities in Vance County Schools (VCS). The department has mandated VCS to follow a corrective action plan, which includes:
Various trainings for staff, not only regarding incarcerated students but also concerning other general procedural requirements for students with disabilities;
Development of procedures to serve students incarcerated in the local jail;
Compensatory education for the named student in the complaint; and
Identification of eligible students who were incarcerated with the named complainant and did not receive appropriate services, for the purposes of providing them with compensatory education.
The resolution of these complaints comes at a time when the population of youth incarcerated in adult jails has shrunk significantly. As a result of a new state law that went into effect on August 1, 2020, no more minors will be held in adult jail. Still, because the right to special education continues for students who are 18 to 21 and have not yet graduated, the developments in both the GCS and VCS resolutions will help ensure that eligible incarcerated students at all stages receive the special education services they are entitled to. Further, some students who may be identified through audits and who were improperly served before the law was passed will now be entitled to remedies.