State Department of Education rules against Savannah-Chatham in special needs complaint

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This article was published on the Savannah Morning News by Barbara Augsdorfer on February 16, 2021.

[Correction: A previous version of this story stated that ESOL students would return to the classroom this week. That was incorrect and the final paragraph of the story has been edited.]

Students with special needs must receive all their required services, and the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools System cannot use the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for not providing those required services, the Georgia Department of Education said in its ruling against the district on Friday afternoon.

The initial complaint was filed by the Savannah-based Sullivan Law Firm last fall stating that due to the district’s all-virtual learning mode, students with special needs were not receiving their free and adequate public education (FAPE); nor their services as outlined in the students’ IEP (Individual Education Plans) as required by federal and state laws.

What each family can and might do in the immediate future is up to the individual family and the needs of their student.

“Some students may have appropriate plans. However, it is certain that there are many who do not,” said Julia Sullivan of the Sullivan Law Firm on Monday. She added that of the 57 records studied, 14% were found to be out of compliance.

If that ratio holds true for the rest of the students with special needs in Savannah-Chatham County, more than 500 students may be affected.

“Any parent [of a student with an IEP] in the district can request an IEP meeting with their school to discuss the possible implications of this decision for their student,” Sullivan said. “There may be grounds to file additional complaints against the district as a direct result of this [Georgia Department of Education] decision, but whether a student has their own individual state complaint or due process claim can only be addressed on a case-by-case basis.” 

Of the more than 4,000 students with special needs enrolled in the Savannah-Chatham Schools district, the Georgia Department of Education reviewed 57 randomly selected educational records of students with special needs — six of those records were used as examples of support for the initial complaint which was filed on Oct. 9, 2020.

The complaint is not a lawsuit.

“The systemic formal state complaint can be filed by anyone who sees something they would like addressed,” Sullivan wrote in a follow-up email when the complaint was filed last October. “We started seeing red flags back in July and as the school year has progressed, our concern over what was happening grew.”

In its ruling on Friday, the Georgia Department of Education stated that SCCPSS did not allow IEP teams to consider and plan for all components of students’ educational needs during periods of full distance/remote instruction.

“One example of how SCCPSS violated the law in this regard is by prohibiting or discouraging requests for in-person educational services that are either required by the student’s IEP, or could increase the likelihood that the student will make progress in a full distance/remote instruction environment,” the ruling stated.

SCCPSS issued a statement at 6:30 p.m. on Monday.

“While the District strongly disagrees with the stated findings, we respect the administrative role of the [Georgia] Department of Education and will comply in a prompt manner to address the extensive demands and directives included in the department’s resolution,” the statement read.

“[We are] particularly aware of the impact that COVID-19 health and safety measures can have on special education student populations and appreciate the challenges that virtual learning can present,” the district statement continued. “We are thankful to the parents and community members that work with our staff members to take on those continuing challenges in a meaningful and productive manner.”

What the state Department of Education ruling says this means for parents of children with special needs is:

• They have a right to be a part of the process (not question whether they are or not);

• The students have a right to a free and appropriate public education and the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse, and

• They can assert their rights against the district if a free and appropriate public education is not being provided.

The district announced last week that students with special needs and “least independent learners,” will return to the classroom on Wednesday.

Barbara Augsdorfer is the education reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Reach her at or on Twitter @Babs7983.