On February 14th, 2024, the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Ohio (“DRO”) filed a due process complaint against the Department of Education and Workforce (“DEW” or “Department”) for its alleged mishandling of a systemic complaint that involves forty-four school districts and an educational service center (“ESC”) in southwest Ohio. The systemic complaint was initially filed by DRO back in 2022, and included broad allegations that the ESC and districts of residence failed to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

After conducting an internal investigation, the Department, which was still the Ohio Department of Education at that point, issued corrective action against the districts involved. Corrective action was also issued against the ESC. The corrective action included compensatory education of up to 100 plus hours in some circumstances, as well as mandated training, implementation of an internal audit process for outside placed special education students, and adoption of policies or procedures that govern placement of students in outside programs.

Districts raised a number of serious concerns about how the Department’s investigation was conducted. As a result, the Department paused its enforcement efforts and agreed to reconsider its decisions. Revised decisions were issued this past year. DRO apparently disagreed with these modifications and subsequently filed its due process complaint against the DEW.

Meanwhile, the ESC filed a legal challenge of its own on February 20th, 2024 in the county common pleas court. The legal action sought a restraining order against the DEW to prevent it from enforcing the corrective action finding against the ESC. The ESC acknowledged that the DEW is the state educational agency for Ohio as required by IDEA, but contested the DEW’s authority to issue corrective action against the ESC. The court found the ESC’s arguments compelling and granted a restraining order on February 22nd. The order specifically enjoined the DEW and its agents from enforcing its corrective action against the ESC temporarily pending further legal review.

The actions filed by DRO and the ESC raise interesting legal questions about the DEW’s authority and process for investigating systemic complaints and issuing corrective action as well as the legal standards upon which actions are based. It is apparent that both the ESC and DRO believe the DEW mishandled the complaint process and exceeded its authority in this case. We will continue to monitor this situation as it evolves. In the meantime, districts are encouraged to promptly contact legal counsel if they receive notice that an IDEA state complaint has been filed against them.