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2 years on, dispute over special education in Warren County remains unresolved

Mche Lee

The advocacy group Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) has filed a complaint against the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, claiming it didn't follow through on its promise to provide adequate special education to students at the Warren County Educational Service Center in Lebanon.

Educational service centers provide professional development, technology, administrative, and special education services to other nearby school districts. The service centers are also considered to be school districts under state law.

The due process complaint filed earlier this month stems from an investigation by the Department of Education into Warren County ESC that began more than two years ago. The investigation was conducted after DRO said it discovered significant violations of state education law at the service center.

DRO claimed Warren County ESC lacked adequate individualized education programs, or IEPs, staff, and other behavioral services. But after a 2022 investigation by the Ohio Department of Education confirmed these claims, it appears not much has changed.

When ODE's investigation concluded, Warren County ESC was ordered to institute changes to meet the state's standards. With state oversight, workers at the center were supposed to attend professional development programs on IEPs and free appropriate public education, or FAPE.

Ninety-one students were supposed to receive an average of 57 hours of compensatory education to make up for the lack of IEPs they supposedly did not get previously. But that order was paused indefinitely by the department in January 2023. After the initial pause, DRO says it reached the state and found the service center was resisting its new instructions.

"At some point, we contacted ODE to ask them about the status of the improvements and found out that the education service center, superintendent and attorneys, and then also attorneys from some of the school districts, had been engaging in what I call a 'pressure campaign' to try to get ODE to overturn the result of the investigation," Kristin Hildebrant, an attorney for Disability Rights Ohio, told WVXU.

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DRO's most recent complaint alleges Warren County ESC's Superintendent Tom Isaacs and others threatened the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce with litigation about the findings and corrective action plan. Instead of filing an official complaint with the state or requesting mediation, DRO claims Isaacs pressured the department to institute the pause and eventually make significant changes to the requirements the service center was asked to comply with. The complaint claims ODEW leadership held the meetings in secret and made adjustments following the ESC's requests without informing DRO or the families of students at the center.

A week after DRO's complaint against ODEW, Warren County ESC aimed at the state department as well, opening a civil case in the Warren County Court of Common Pleas against ODEW.

Warren County ESC claims DRO's initial complaint from years ago lacked evidence of systemic issues with the center and used complaints from a small number of families to launch a state investigation.

The legal complaint filed by an attorney for the ESC alleges the center's governing board and affiliated school districts were never offered the opportunity to rebut any of DRO's claims and the findings from the state's investigation, stating the department lacked factual evidence but accepted the allegations anyway.

The ESC's court filing also claims the department used findings from Warren County's Wellness Center, which utilizes a treatment program for students with serious mental health, behavioral, and emotional difficulties, and used them to paint a negative picture of the center as a whole.

The Wellness Center is located in Mason, away from the education center's main building, and focuses mainly on providing mental health treatment for students at risk of harming themselves or others.

According to Warren County ESC, families who send students to the Wellness Center agree to a school day that spends 80% on treatment and 20% on math and English language arts.

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While students there don't receive instruction in science or social studies, which is required by the state, the ESC's attorney says the Wellness Center is not a permanent school for students and provides the most immediate needs for at-risk students.

Kristin Hildebrant from DRO says this claim from Warren County ESC won't hold up.

"That complaint is sort of a 'kitchen sink' approach to try to see what might stick," Hildebrant said. "That issue is really an issue outside of the complaint we brought. Our complaint was focused on individual student IEPs and the services they should've been getting according to their IEP."

Hildebrant went on to say the action taken by Superintendent Tom Isaacs and Warren County ESC leaders shows they're more focused on defending themselves against corrective action than providing services that meet the state's standards to students who need them.

Last Thursday, Warren County ESC's attorney Gary Stedronsky filed a temporary restraining order against ODEW, which was granted by the court, preventing the department from enforcing corrective action.

"This is the first step in keeping ODEW bureaucrats in Columbus out of parent choices for their children. We look forward to presenting our full case as this moves through court," Stedronsky told WVXU in a statement.

A spokesperson for ODEW responded to WVXU's request for comment but did not provide a statement on the matter.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.