Collier parent group files civil rights complaints against 64 Florida school districts

— A parent group that launched a federal investigation into the Collier County School District’s civil rights protocol has broadened its net.

The Collier ESE Reform group in April lodged complaints against 64 of 67 Florida school districts. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights informed the group via letter that it is acting on the complaint and launching investigations into how each county school district adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The group says it is concerned with how districts deal with education and discipline of students who fall under the umbrella of Exceptional Student Education, denoting a range of physical, cognitive and learning disabilities.

The Lee County School district is among those being examined, following a September 2008 ruling by the Office of Civil Rights that found the Collier County School District to be in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Since then, said reform group President Cathy Cannivet, parents from all over the state have called to report problems similar to the one that prompted her and group member Bill Hughes to file the Collier complaint.

Collier, which is among the three districts not named in the complaint, was exempt because it was already examined by the Office of Civil Rights, as were the Miami-Dade and Pinellas school districts.

“We found that what was going on in Collier County is going on across the state,” said Cannivet. “The Florida Department of Education and the school districts are failing to inform parents of their rights under ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act).”

Cannivet and Hughes filed the complaint alleging that Hughes’ son was barred from bringing a service dog to school, and further stated that the district lacked a system of safeguards including an impartial hearing process required by the Rehabilitation Act.

The Office of Civil rights ruled there was evidence to support a finding that the district’s safeguards do not “fully comply” with the law, and Superintendent Dennis Thompson has said the district since modified its policies and now complies with the law.

Cannivet said she filed a complaint regarding the Collier County School District, alleging it is still not conforming to the law and prompting the Office of Civil Rights to reopen the investigation closed in September 2008. However, Collier school district spokesman Joe Landon said on Tuesday the district had not seen the new complaint and had no further comment. A phone call to the U.S. Department of Education’s press office was not returned Tuesday.

Cannivet said she believes school districts in Florida are deliberately withholding information from parents about their rights under the law, and further says the Florida Department of Education has been negligent in overseeing how districts conform to the laws.

“The Florida Department of Education is not required by law to monitor the school districts (in regard to the rights of disabled students),” Cannivet said. “They need to come up with one uniform policy. It’s ridiculous for 67 school districts to have 67 different policies under ADA (Section) 504.”

Karen Taylor, a Cape Coral resident, and mother of a 14-year-old with a specified learning disability, said she applauds the effort to expand the examination state-wide.

Taylor, whose son attends a Lee County Public School, said she struggled and fought to have a say in her son’s Individualized Education Plan, a written document outlining the education program for a child with a disability. An Individualized Education Plan is required for all students with disabilities by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Taylor said her son’s plan was changed without consulting her, and she fought to get a seat at the table in order to discuss the changes, eventually bringing in a lawyer after she said she was intimidated and belittled by the district for speaking up. At the time, she was employed by the Lee County School District as a bus driver, but she claims she was fired for speaking up about how her son was being treated.

“I was fired Oct. 22 when I didn’t shut up,” said Taylor. “My son was threatened, I was threatened.”

District spokesman Joe Donzelli said the district had provided documentation to the Office of Civil Rights to demonstrate its compliance with the law, but said the district would not comment any further on an open investigation.

For her situation, things have gotten better, Taylor said, but she wants to make sure a similar situation does not befall another family in Lee County, Southwest Florida or elsewhere in the state.

That is the point of the complaint filed by Collier ESE Reform, Cannivet said.

“By filing these 64 complaints with OCR (the Office of Civil Rights), I would have to say that I bet never in history with another state has this happened,” said Cannivet. “Florida, right now, is the only state in the country this has ever happened to.”

Staff writer Katherine Albers contributed to this report.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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