Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, June 17 @ 4:15 p.m. / Education

Del Norte Unified Settles With Plaintiffs In Special Education Lawsuit; Agreement Calls For State Solutions to Staffing Shortage, Superintendent Says

Advocates representing local special education students discuss a lawsuit against the state and Del Norte Unified School District at a community meeting in February. | File photo: Jessica C. Andrews

A local judge has sided with the state, granting a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against California education officials concerning Del Norte Unified School District's inability to meet the needs of its special education students.

However, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs said Wednesday, that they’ve reached a settlement agreement with the school district that, among other things, requires DNUSD to “immediately cease telling students not to stay home due to a shortage of aides.”

The agreement also requires DNUSD and plaintiffs to work together to petition the state to come up with viable solutions to address the district’s staffing shortage. This includes providing the funding for a technical assistance provider tasked with ensuring the district is meeting the terms in the settlement agreement.

The state will also be asked to help monitor implementation of the settlement agreement during the 2024-25 and 2025-26 school years.

“If the state does say no, then the district has agreed to assist the plaintiffs in filing another motion of preliminary injunction in the court against the state,” said Malhar Shah, staff attorney with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, one of the organizations representing the plaintiffs.

DNUSD Superintendent Jeff Harris said the potential solutions laid down in the settlement agreement could be options for school districts across California.

“We’re not the only ones in this boat,” he said. “And I think that was something that came out in a lot of the conversations [with the plaintiffs] and the explorations we’ve done.”

The Board of Trustees approved the settlement agreement with the plaintiffs — six special needs students and their guardians — on June 6, Harris said.

Other components of the settlement agreement include working with a technical assistance provider “to create benchmarks and deadlines for the district to meet,” Shah said.

DNUSD will be required to make reports to the plaintiffs and to their legal counselors. If school district is not meeting deadlines, the plaintiffs can require the court to enforce the agreement, Shah said.

Acting on behalf of those six families, DREDF filed its original lawsuit against the California Department of Education, State Board of Education and Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, in December.

DNUSD was named as a defendant in the case in March.

The plaintiffs sought to compel the state to fix a staffing shortage within DNUSD that has caused some students to miss an average of 30 to 40 days of school. As a result, many have regressed in their ability to read and write and have experienced backsliding in other skills such as basic math and handwriting, Shah told parents at a community meeting in February.

In addition to DREDF, the plaintiffs are also represented by the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, or CREEC, and the international law firm King & Spalding LLC.

In December, when DREDF first filed its suit against the state on behalf of the plaintiffs, DNUSD had 110 open classified staff positions, 24 of which involved working with special education students.

In April, the district had more than 40 special education job openings posted, NPR reporter Cory Turner wrote in a May 15 article.

On Monday, Harris said that due to the end of the school year, he was unable to say exactly how many special education positions were open.

“We’re in the middle of hiring,” he said. “We also have people taking different positions within the district as positions become available and then we also have, because it is summer, people who are making the decision to move out of the area to take other jobs or whatever that might be.”

Under the settlement agreement, Del Norte Unified won’t limit the ability of the plaintiffs and other special needs students to attend full school days based on “the unavailability of special education staff.”

DNUSD administrators must issue a written directive to special education staff and school leaders telling them not to instruct parents to keep their student at home due to the unavailability of an aide.

Harris said the district’s special education director, Jennifer Armington, has already issued that directive.

Del Norte Unified School District is also required to develop a contingency plan to ensure support for students with individualized education programs, or IEPs, if their assigned aide is absent.

The school district must also come up with a plan to provide compensatory education to students who missed school days during the last two years because staff wasn’t available.

This plan includes expanding the district’s extended school year — or summer school — program and providing extra special education aide supports. DNUSD may also be asked to pay for other learning opportunities for special needs students who are owned compensatory education, Harris said.

“We would be establishing a fund so that if we’re unable to provide compensatory education, if the family were to find someone who could do it in lieu of us, we would pay for that,” Harris said.

Parents can reach out to the Redwood Coast Regional Center or to DREDF’s Parent Training and Information Center for help finding finding either private tutors or an outside program that can ensure their child gets the education they missed out on, Shah said.

In addition to paying for the technical assistance provider and monitoring the implementation of the settlement agreement, the state will be asked to provide funding to expand DNUSD’s ability to make forgivable loans to special education teachers, according to the agreement.

Harris said DNUSD provides loan opportunities to classified staff who want to pursue a teaching credential. DNUSD will pay for their credential work and if the employee works for DNUSD for five years, those expenses are forgiven, he said.

The plaintiffs and school district will also petition the state to propose legislation or grant waivers to allow DNUSD to alleviate the special education staffing shortage.

According to Harris, the settlement agreement lays out steps DNUSD has already taken and solidifies potential things it can do in the future. This includes figuring out a hiring strategy it hasn’t done before, Harris said.

“For instance, we’ve always relied on either social media or going to colleges or posting online that we need people,” the superintendent told the Outpost. “I was talking with a colleague down south and they said they took a hiring trip to a different country and went to job fairs and were able to hire a few people. So we started working with search firms that work internationally and we are having some success in attracting people from out of the country to come to work here.”

While Shah stated that the settlement agreement only applies to DNUSD, he allowed that it could have a broader impact on other California school districts.

“If the state does agree to help, it obviously sets a precedent for what the state’s obligations can and should be when it comes to school districts,” he said. “We’ll see how this goes and how implementation goes. We hope it alleviates the staffing [shortage] in the short-term and long-term significantly.”


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