An investigation by state education officials found Evergreen Public Schools staff violated federal law by closing Fircrest Elementary School’s deaf and hard of hearing program and inadequately writing students’ individual education plans.
The investigation by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction came after the district alerted staff that the Fircrest Elementary program would be shuttered, reporting a lack of demand from the community. Some staff and parents reported being caught off guard by the change and argued that the move to place Fircrest’s deaf students in general education classrooms could be a violation of their individual education plans.
The state found the action violated the federal Individuals in Education Disability Act.
Evergreen has been ordered to keep the Fircrest program open as an option for students and hold individual education plan meetings with the parents and staff members of all deaf and hard of hearing students impacted by the changes, primarily those who were starting kindergarten this year. The state encouraged the district to hold those meetings in collaboration with the Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth in Vancouver.
Evergreen must also hold a training session in special factors and considerations for deaf and hard of hearing students for all its special education administrators, principals and assistant principals in the district by Dec. 1.
“Evergreen Public Schools is working with families, (the state) and the Washington Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth to honor all corrective actions that were outlined in (the state’s) decision,” an Evergreen spokesperson said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “Along with the corrective actions, Evergreen will be following through on all of (the state’s) recommendations that are discussed in the decision. The district continues to work with families of students who require deaf and hard of hearing services to make sure that they are receiving the support services they need.”
Behind the investigation
The investigation was prompted by a series of parent complaints that argued Evergreen made the decision to close the Fircrest program without fully assessing how the change would impact some students in the long term.
In June, staff and parents of students at Fircrest spoke out at a district board meeting, detailing how the school’s collection of interpreters, audiologists and speech services made it especially accessible for students with need for increased support in their individual education plans.
Placing all these students in general education settings — even with an interpreter — could limit their access to the sense of community among deaf peers that Fircrest provided, they said.
The primary complainant, Kyla Ritchey — a parent of a Fircrest student who was set to lose those services — worked with Seattle-based education firm Cedar Law PLLC to combat the decision to close the program. Ritchey ultimately also reached a settlement with Evergreen, requiring that her child be placed back in Fircrest and their legal fees be reimbursed by the district.
“(The state) recognized what we’ve been frustrated with and what the teachers had been noticing, that something wasn’t right in this decision-making process,” Ritchey said Tuesday. “Decisions for students should be coming from everyone on the individualized education plan team and not from the district.”
Whitney Hill, a partner at Cedar Law working on the case, said she’s observed a wider trend to move away from smaller deaf programs like Fircrest’s.
“This case was really interesting, because what we’ve seen historically is this push nationally and locally to eliminate small programs like this. The (Department of Education) has given guidance that this is not supposed to be happening, but it’s led to language deprivation for thousands of kids across the country.”
Hill said this particular case and investigation was benefitted by the level of organization Ritchey, other parents and Fircrest staff had done to fight for the program.
“This was possible because of the advocacy that the teachers had done. They had written incredible (individual education plans) that thoroughly explained what this program was doing versus what the neighborhood schools program was doing,” said Hill, who worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for 13 years before pursuing law. “The timing was great for state input. Right time, right place, right people.”
Moving forward this year
Evergreen is required to hold meetings with all impacted families to reevaluate individualized education plans by Friday. Each meeting is expected to further explore the larger range of needs for deaf and hard of hearing students and how they differ from other special education students.
Despite the findings of the investigation and Ritchey’s settlement, Hill expressed concern with how Evergreen will proceed in its maintenance of the Fircrest program. In a post shared on the firm’s website, Hill said Evergreen refused to make a statement to families of students receiving deaf and hard of hearing services alerting them of the investigation’s findings and the renewed availability of the Fircrest program.
For parents to learn about what’s provided at Fircrest, both Hill and Ritchey said, they may have to specifically ask about it during their individualized education plan.
“We first asked the district to write a letter to families saying ‘we messed up.’ We wanted them to take affirmative action to clean up any misinformation or just let families know their rights. They were very clear that they were not willing to do that.” Hill said. “The district is going to have a different opinion, but my reading of that is that is it’s still illegal. They have a responsibility to let families know what their options are.”
A statement from Evergreen Tuesday said the district was “not in a position to discuss this matter,” as questions from The Columbian regarding any potential district statements about the availability of the Fircrest program “relate to litigation involving a specific case and individual.”
Ritchey said she’s looking forward to the district learning more about the needs of its deaf and hard of hearing students through trainings in the coming months and that she’s grateful the Fircrest program can continue.
“This is an opportunity to bring something back that was really cherished in the community,” said Ritchey, whose sister once attended the Fircrest program. “So many people who are alumni of the program have reached out to tell me how happy they are to see this come back, to be this beautiful program that it once was.”