Feds to investigate three complaints against Wilder

File photo from the Wilder school district, after the district won a grant from Apple to provide iPads to students. Andrew Reed/Idaho Education News.

The U.S. Department of Education will investigate three allegations that the Wilder School District failed to provide adequate services to English Language Learners, in response to a complaint Wilder patrons filed with the department’s Office for Civil Rights earlier this year. The department is dismissing five allegations that the district discriminated against English learners and students with disabilities, because of timing concerns or a lack of evidence. The feds decision was announced in a letter to attorneys on Tuesday.

Two Wilder parents, a student and a district patron initially complained to the OCR in January, alleging that the district discriminated against students learning English, and students with disabilities, and retaliated against parents who raised complaints.

Wilder is a small, majority-Latino school district on the Idaho-Oregon border. About a third of its 500 students are English learners, and about 15% have a disability.

The initial complaint alleges that Wilder had no formal system to identify English language learner (ELL) students, and when students were identified they did not receive adequate instruction. The complaint also says that since the 2017-18 school year, Wilder has not been compliant with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Patrons argued that after superintendent Jeff Dillon moved the district to a personalized learning system, which relies heavily on technology and self-directed learning, students with disabilities were unable to teach themselves on the district iPads and did not get the individual assistance they needed.

The department will investigate only three of eight allegations, and dismiss the disability-related allegations, it said in a Tuesday letter to Idaho Legal Aid Services, which is representing district patrons. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) said several of the alleged issues were too old. It generally only investigates issues that happened within 180 days of the time the complaint was filed.

“OCR’s decision to open an investigation of these allegations does not reflect an opinion by OCR regarding the merits of the allegations,” the federal notice says. “It is OCR’s responsibility to address the allegations in a fair and impartial manner.”

The feds will investigate these three allegations to determine if Wilder violated Title VI of the civil rights act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and disability:

  • That Wilder failed to adopt and implement an appropriate English language assistance program model that is considered sound by experts in the field.
  • That Wilder failed to adequately staff its ELL program.
  • That Wilder failed to consider student’s English proficiency in determining the ELL services to be provided.

A 2020 audit by the State’s Department of Education flagged similar issues with Wilder’s English Language Learner program. At the time, state reviewers found no evidence of a core language instruction program, or ELL courses offered to Wilder Middle or High school students, state ELL coordinator Maria Puga said. The district closed its latest audit in March of this year by submitting documents that addressed the state’s concerns.

In an email to EdNews on Thursday, Wilder superintendent Jeff Dillon said the claims in the OCR complaint were addressed in the state’s audit process.

“As we have stated before, we provide a personal learning plan for all students, which includes ELL students,” Dillon said.

The U.S. Department of Education will not investigate the following allegations:

  • That Wilder failed to adequately identify and assess ELL students for placement into the ELL program. The complaint alleged that Wilder was placing students in ELL programs based only on their Latinx surnames and responses to a home language survey. OCR interviewed parents and an unnamed source about this, and did not find sufficient evidence that the district was inappropriately placing students in the ELL program.
  • That Wilder retaliated against parents of ELL students who raised concerns about the ELL program. Though parents allege this was an issue beginning in 2017-18, OCR does not investigate complaints that far back. Legal Aid apparently told the federal government that one other parent alleged retaliation in the 2020-21 school year, but that the parent did not want to participate in the OCR investigation.
  • That Wilder discriminated against students with disabilities. The complaint alleges this was a problem starting in the 2017-18 school year, but Legal Aid attorneys told OCR they couldn’t say whether this was happening more recently.
  • That Wilder failed to evaluate ELL students with disabilities in a timely manner. Also an issue of timing. OCR says that Idaho Legal Aid didn’t identify students who had this issue during the 2020-21 school year. The department did talk to one family about a disability-related concern, but the parent said she did not want to file an individual complaint against the district.
  • That Wilder failed to consider students’ language needs in evaluations for disability-related services. Idaho Legal Aid alleged that Wilder did not have a policy to ensure that a student’s language was considered when they were evaluated for disability-related services, according to the OCR letter. OCR did find Wilder’s policy on this, and dismissed this complaint when Legal Aid did not identify students who had this issue after August of 2020, the letter says.

Legal Aid attorneys say they’re pleased that the federal government decided to pursue part of their complaint.

“While we are disappointed that the OCR decided not to investigate all aspects of the complaint, we are pleased that OCR will be investigating the ELL issues, which is the main focus,” attorney Erik Johnson said over email.

Legal Aid can appeal OCR’s decision not to look at evidence prior to the 2020-21 school year, Johnson said, and he and other attorneys will be discussing that option. They have 60 days to file an appeal.

Johnson did not have a timeline for OCR’s investigation, but it could take a while. The Tuesday update on the case came almost 10 months after patrons’ initial complaint.

This is a developing story and Idaho Education News will update as more relevant information becomes available.

Sami Edge

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