Shakeup at Department of Education includes demotion of state’s top special education official

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This article was written by Anita Wadhwani and published by the Tennessee Lookout on October 7, 2021.

As Gov. Bill Lee battles lawsuits from parents of kids with disabilities — along with a federal civil rights investigation into whether his ban on universal masking in schools discriminates against kids at high risk for serious illness from COVID —  the state’s top special education official has been demoted.

Theresa Nicholls served as Assistant Commissioner for Special Populations at the Department of Education until last week, when she was abruptly reassigned to work in the department’s office of general counsel.

Nicholls’ reassignment came as a shock to disability advocates, educators and parents who work with her closely to carry out day-to-day work of implementing federal grants and ensuring kids with disabilities are getting legally required services. Her standing meetings were cancelled on short notice. No one from the department has formally communicated her departure with  stakeholders — including major federal grant recipients, who regularly work with Nicholls — about her reassignment. The department, however, did quickly posted a new organization chart that excludes Nicholls.

Child advocates describe Nicholls, who has worked at the department for eight years, as an accessible and able leader. They say they were shocked to learn she left the division and are concerned about the stability of their work with the state going forward. Five advocates who spoke with the Lookout did so on the condition they would not be identified, because they want to continue to have a good relationship with the department.

Nicholls is well-known within the state’s special education and disability circles, but did not play a very public role until last month, when she served as a witness in a federal court trial over Lee’s school mask policy in Shelby County.

The hearing was to consider a preliminary injunction against Lee’s mask opt-out order in a lawsuit brought by three Shelby County parents of students with disabilities or conditions that leave them immunocompromised.

Nicholls testified about the extensive accommodations provided to students with disabilities since the pandemic began, the Commercial Appeal reported. In response to questions from the parents’ attorneys, she also testified that Lee had not consulted with her before issuing an executive order that barred schools from enforcing universal mask mandates.

Lawyers also asked Nicholls if her job would be made easier if everyone was masked, according to the Commercial Appeal report

“I think my job would be easier in a lot of cases,” she responded. “Sure, there’s a lot of things that would make my life easier.”

After her testimony, U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a preliminary injunction halting Bill Lee’s mask opt-out executive order in Shelby County. In her order, Shipman wrote:

“Without consulting his own education experts on the needs of children with disabilities and going against the public health guidance of local and national medical and public health entities, Governor Lee took an action that adversely affected the right of disabled children to access public education.”

Nicholls also testified in a similar case brought by Knox County parents. But she did not make an appearance in a hearing in another case challenging the governor’s executive order in Williamson County. That hearing took place Tuesday, after Nicholls was reassigned.

A Department of Education spokesman responded after publication with a statement that said the “realignment will ensure that supports for students with disabilities permeates every decision we make.”

“This has been a challenging year that has changed how we work and even where we work,” spokesman Brian Blackley said in an email. “It has exacerbated pre-existing achievement gaps for students with disabilities and other at-risk student populations. This has necessitated an organizational restructure to adapt to current conditions. After considerable thought and discussion, we are excited about the opportunity to embed special education resources and expertise across key offices and teams to align with their work.”

Nicholls declined to comment.

Nicholls will be replaced by Jennifer Jordan, according to an email by a Tennessee schools superintendent outlining the changes that was obtained by the Lookout.

Jordan previously served as senior director of instruction and intervention at the department.  Her new title is assistant commissioner of special education and intervention programs. The email outlined other changes: the Early Childhood Transition Team, which focuses on the needs of young children with disabilities, will be removed entirely from the Department of Education — a significant transition that has also gone unannounced. That team will now be housed within the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

The email said that Nicholls’ new role will be to serve students with disabilities as a program expert on Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law that guides special education.