PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Federal education officials are examining Rhode Island’s compliance with a law that requires special education for students after a Target 12 investigation last week revealed dozens of young children aren’t receiving services in Providence.

The investigative report has since evoked widespread outrage from parents, lawmakers and advocates, as the state-controlled Providence school district — suffering from a staffing shortage — has failed to provide federally mandated education to at least 34 children between the ages of 3 and 5.

“I was completely appalled that we have kids who have the right to these services and they’re not able to access them,” said Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Rhode Island Kids Count.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires the educational services be provided to young children with developmental delays starting at age 3.

On Wednesday, U.S. Department of Education spokesperson Julie Ewart said the federal government expects all state education departments to ensure qualifying students receive the services required under IDEA.

The spokesperson said the federal department’s Office of Special Education Programs would be “following up with the Rhode Island Department of Education regarding the issues identified in your reports.”

The state’s Education Department took over control over the Providence school district in 2019, and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green earlier this month acknowledged the burgeoning crisis in the capital city.

She attributed the problem to an ongoing staffing shortage, which she argues the state has tried to address, and said the problem could hit other school districts in the near future.

“It’s a bad situation,” she told Target 12, noting the district is “having trouble meeting the law.”

Earlier this week, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha — who previously served as Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney — said he’d “be concerned about a federal investigation that the civil rights of these students have been violated.” He urged state officials to try and fix the problem as quickly as possible.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m defending a lawsuit like this,” he told 12 News.

A spokesperson for Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha told Target 12 this week the Department of Justice is “aware” of the concerns of Providence parents, but did not say if the department might open an investigation.

One of the parents featured in Target 12’s original report is Junie-Fed Michel of Providence, whose son Juju was approved to begin receiving special education in November, but so far hasn’t received any school. Juju is now 3-and-a-half-years old and remains nonverbal.

“As a mother, it’s a heartbreaking situation for me,” Michel said last month.

After Target 12’s report aired on Thursday, Michel received a call that a special education preschool in Cranston might have a spot available for Juju. A spokesperson for the Providence school district said the private school is currently reviewing Juju’s file to determine if it can meet his needs.

Providence would be required to pay his tuition. It’s the second time the district has tried to send Juju to a private school in lieu of getting him into preschool in Providence; the first time, the private school said they could not serve him.

Also on Friday, a trio of state senators called for special-education reform, calling Target 12’s findings “unacceptable.”

Clausius-Parks is pushing for a slate of measures that she said could help address the ongoing crisis of staffing in early childhood special education.

The proposed legislation includes a bill to increase pay for early educators across the state, a budget article to prevent the closure of 40 pre-K classrooms and the creation of a special education ombud who would serve as an independent watchdog.

“Our childhood system overall from birth through age five is a very fragile system that needs investment,” Clausius-Parks said.

She noted that the issue in Providence is a continuation of a similar problem seen with Early Intervention, or EI, a federally mandated service for newborns to 3-year-olds with developmental delays.

Rhode Island has been grappling with an EI waiting list for well over a year, and advocates say the delays are technically illegal. Between November and February, Clausius-Parks said there have been 1,500 qualifying infants and toddlers waiting for an EI evaluation or determination. (State officials have not provided a waitlist number when asked by Target 12.)

RIDE officials have acknowledged they knew about the impending pre-K crisis last spring. Clausius-Parks said while she didn’t want to point fingers, the state should have had a plan.

“There were things that we as a state could have done to make sure kids could access services — that we would have a plan — and kids would not have been waiting this long,” she said.

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Steph Machado ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.