PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hundreds of Rhode Island parents and advocates are pushing lawmakers to create an independent office that would investigate K-12 special education complaints and provide resources to parents and others.
A bill establishing the separate office of the special education ombud passed the state senate earlier this year but died in the house. The R.I. Department of Education is currently in charge of special education investigations and opposed the bill.
“The state department of education can’t watch itself, can it?” said Joanna Scocchi, state director of The ARC Rhode Island, a nonprofit that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Scocchi said the state’s current special education system is failing students and families, and said she helped recruit 600 parents across the state to support the ombud bill.
Target 12 reported Monday that R.I. K-12 public school districts are planning to spend just 1.6% of $330 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding on students in special education despite the fact that roughly 90% of those students in 3rd grade failed state standardized tests in 2021.
State sen. Melissa Murray, D-Woonsocket, told Target 12 she introduced the bill because she heard from so many constituents who felt the special education system wasn’t working for them.
“We modeled it on the office of the child advocate for DCYF,” Murray said. “It’s also to help hold RIDE accountable to make sure that they’re meeting those deadlines for those special education kids.”
RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente said in a statement that Rhode Island has been “a regional leader and national model” in making sure “students and families receive the services that they need and deserve.”
He said the RIDE-operated special education call center helps parents and educators with “concerns related to public education, special education services and dispute resolution options.”
“For the past two years, Rhode Island has outperformed all other New England states with the lowest number of formal special education disputes,” Morente said.
He said RIDE opposed “adding another layer of bureaucracy for parents to navigate only for them to come back to RIDE” for formal disputes.
Rachel Marsh, who has two middle schoolers in special education in South Kingstown Schools, told Target 12 she wants an independent office. She said she’s spent years fighting with the district for not providing federally-guaranteed special education services.
“I think everyone’s kind of lost, this is not my area of expertise,” Marsh said. “If there were a place that everyone knew about and could leverage, that would be tremendous.”
Michael Green agreed.
Green’s son is in special education at Warwick Schools, and Green said he’s tired of fighting with the district.
“It’s so hard to find who to ask and who to follow up on things,” Green said. “I think having someone in your corner to help is a really important thing.”
House spokesperson Larry Berman said in a statement, “The House looks forward to revisiting this issue in January.”
Murray said she plans to introduce the bill in the senate again in January, and Scocchi said she’ll keep fighting until the bill becomes law.
“I will keep shouting from the rooftops because these kids are being failed by the state of Rhode Island,” Scocchi said.
Tolly Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook