SEATTLE — When state lawmakers established the Office of the Education Ombuds in 2006, their aim was to help Washington families navigate the public K-12 school system and work with schools to resolve their concerns.
If the volume of calls tells a story, it was that the service was sorely needed — especially during the pandemic. The office recorded 1,169 requests in the 2021-22 academic year — the second-highest in its history. This total was up from 627 requests in 2020-21 and 617 in 2019-20.
Most of the requests concerned students with disabilities and kids requiring special education not getting the support they needed. The office has also received a large number of calls about harassment, intimidation and bullying issues, as well as enrollment and attendance.
“We get the calls when families are frustrated or lost or they feel like they’ve exhausted every single option at the local level, whether that’s a teacher, their school or their school district,” said Erin Okuno, the new executive director of the ombuds.
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Okuno to the post in November for her “strong background and record of leading racial equity, community engagement, and program management.” For many, she is a familiar advocate for students and families because of her work as the executive director for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition from 2014 to last October.
Most of the calls to the agency come from the Seattle area. But this year, a new state law goes into effect requiring schools to notify families how to contact the Office of the Education Ombuds through websites and materials like handbooks. One of Okuno’s staff goals is reaching out more to Central and Eastern Washington families to offer information and resources.
The OEO employs nine people, including five senior and associate ombuds who listen to people’s concerns and complaints.
Ombuds have no legally binding authority, but they can help students and families navigate the complex systems and jargon of public K-12 education and find resolutions. Language interpretation services are offered, and there is no charge for any of the work. The office is independent from the state public school system, and requests remain confidential unless consent is given to an ombuds to engage on the inquirer’s behalf.
The ombuds prioritize cases concerning youth with disabilities, in inpatient care, experiencing homelessness, in kinship or foster care, involved with juvenile justice or rehabilitation systems; students with immigrant, refugee, or migrant status, or granted asylum; those whose primary language is not English; and those from racial and ethnic backgrounds that face marginalization and achievement gaps.
The OEO regularly conducts outreach and training around commonly reported issues. The staff also submits reports to the governor, OSPI, State Board of Education and Legislature sharing insights and recommending policy and practice changes that can better serve students, schools and families.
Guiding families with a trained ear
The ombuds staffers bring to their work a range of experiences: Some are parents, some have backgrounds in law and policy, others are former educators or social workers.
Associate education ombuds Karin Mendez taught for 28 years and is bilingual in English and Spanish. She’s a first responder for the OEO, and often finds that communication issues are at the heart of the disconnect between students, families and schools.
A student or their family might not feel heard by the school, or failed to connect with the right person. “It goes both ways,” Mendez said.
She’s helped families who received letters from schools threatening punitive action for a child habitually not showing up or participating in class. Sometimes, there’s a good explanation.
In one case, a mother of several young children didn’t want her older child to walk alone to the bus stop, but didn’t have another way to get them there. In another case, a child was being treated as insolent and lazy for falling asleep in class; Mendez discovered that the child was diabetic, and dealing with chronic exhaustion.
In these cases, Mendez guides families to simple solutions, like how to have a conversation with an attendance officer or make sure the school is better informed about a student’s condition. She also shares contacts and resources from OEO’s well-sourced directory.
Another common issue: Parents and caregivers for whom English is not their first language say school officials and teachers are condescending because of their accents or lack of English proficiency. Or, if the families have moved here from another country, they often confront a learning curve for the differences in school policies, practices and culture.
“Schools come with a whole different lexicon that a lot of parents don’t know,” Mendez said.
When she hears a parent say, “I think the school thinks I’m stupid,” she gives them this advice: “I tell them you have the knowledge and I’ll give you the language. It’s about giving them back their power and encouraging them to speak in their voice and to not be ashamed,” said Mendez.
Teaching people to communicate
When cases are complex, Jinju Park, a senior education ombuds, may be called in for her expertise. She became an expert in education law while working in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
While she cannot offer legal advice in her ombuds role, she can help families understand the right things to ask and language to use.
“I’ll ask things like, if you could wave a magic wand over the situation and get a specific outcome, what does that look like? What does success look like? What is that metric? And then based on that answer, we try to tailor a way to address this,” said Park.
Park said she has met with school administrators in some cases to challenge them on assumptions they may have about a student or family situation. She tries to navigate the situation “in a way that doesn’t create hostility towards our agency, but also does not let people off the hook for facing the possibility of their institutional racism in unequal discipline and exclusion from school. Or the internalized ableism of preventing children from participating in more challenging classes if they happen to have a disability.”
Issues to consider
Over the years, the education ombuds have reported concerning trends in Washington’s public K-12 system to school officials and legislators.
The office continues to find that students who receive special education services are not receiving all of the accommodations outlined in their support plans. That could be attributed to a lack of staffing, according to the office’s December 2022 case themes report.
One suggested solution from the ombuds: Reevaluate the salary schedules for classified employees.
The report says, “One-on-one aides cannot be provided for students who need them if there are no qualified and motivated applicants who are able or willing to work at the current salary level.”
Signs of progress are documented, too. For example, three months into the current school year, requests have dipped, which could be interpreted as schools “have started to hit their stride and have been able to provide sufficient support to most of their students.”
Resolutions may not come swiftly or easily, Okuno said, but students, families and schools all have a responsibility to be a part of the process. To achieve educational justice, she said, school systems must do their part “to remove barriers for those who are struggling the most.”