Office for Civil Rights investigating complaint about special ed

The farm at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto. PAUSD photo.

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Daily Post Staff Writer

The Office for Civil Rights is investigating the Palo Alto Unified School District for allegedly denying special education students the chance to attend Ohlone Elementary School, where students learn on a farm with sheep, goats, chickens and a vegetable garden.

Five families and Stanford Law School students filed a complaint with the federal office after the district announced that the Ohlone class would be transferred to Nixon Elementary School in the fall so that students could be in more age-appropriate groups.

Superintendent Don Austin said the district is putting students with moderate and severe disabilities into more age-appropriate groups.

Rather than having one class with kindergarten through fifth grade, classes will now be split into two: kindergarten through second grade, and third grade through fifth grade, Superintendent Don Austin said.

“This has been a recommendation before my arrival,” Austin said. “Many have questioned why it took so long.”

But parents are upset that the district made the decision without their input, and they want to stay at Ohlone.

The investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will look into whether special education students will be excluded from the benefits of the district’s “choice schools,” such as Ohlone.

“Believe it or not, watching chickens has a calming affect for many of our (special education) students,” said Liz Crandell, who worked as an aide at Ohlone from 2008 to 2021.

Ohlone also emphasizes parent involvement as part of its choice program.

Parent calls Ohlone ‘a dream come true’
Parent Lars Smith said he transferred his son to the special education program at Ohlone because he had three teachers in one semester at Barron Park Elementary School.

The family moved to the neighborhood so his son could ride his scooter to school, and it’s been a dream come true, Smith said.

“The arrogance and hubris of the district in the way they’re doing this is appalling,” he said.

Students from the Stanford Law School wrote a letter on behalf of the parents asking the district to keep the Ohlone classroom open in Room 19 during the investigation.

“Not only would the transfer of the Room 19 children to Nixon be traumatic for the children and their families, it is also premature and inappropriate because the closure of Room 19 very likely discriminates against children with moderate-to-severe disabilities,” said the letter by Matthew Coffin, Rebecca Davis and William Koski of Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Project.

“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,” they wrote.

Austin said the district had a short mediation with the parents on May, and he hasn’t heard an argument against splitting the program into two groups, which helps teachers and aides too.

“We empathize with the five families from Ohlone who would like to remain at their site,” Austin said, noting that special education families were also transferred from Escondido Elementary School.

OCR returns to Palo Alto
Between 2011 and 2017, the Office of Civil Rights investigated Palo Alto schools 12 times, many focused on sexual harassment.

1 Comment

  1. On the surface, this decision seems to make some sense sense: consolidating classrooms so that special ed students can be with more age peers. But, as with many things, we have to think through the details. When the families are protesting this move, we should be extra cautious about whether this is really the right move.

    1. The district is abruptly tearing children out of their home schools. That is hard for many students, but many of these children have autism. Change is hard for them — reason to be extra cautious. Perhaps they should have been grandfathered in?

    2. The district is closing all access to choice programs. Isn’t this discriminatory? Apparently the federal government thinks it might be.

    3. Closing Ohlone is especially heartbreaking. This is a program uniquely well-suited to these kids. I just can’t understand why the district wouldn’t have kept one of the special ed classrooms there. (Oh, right, the district also wants to close all the choice programs.)

    4. This was done without consultation with parents. Just announced, like the kids are cogs in machine and can be just moved around whenever. Seriously? No one from the district thought this might just go over really badly?

    This is why there’s a petition against Don Austin.

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