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Investigation into Warren County ESC reveals inadequate services for students with disabilities

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An investigation into the Warren County Educational Service Center by the Ohio Department of Education has revealed the special education provider was not providing adequate individualized education or extracurricular activities and failed to evaluate students with suspected disabilities properly.

In Ohio, educational service centers are school districts under state law that provide other school districts with professional development, technology, administrative and special education services. There are 51 ESCs throughout the state.

The Warren County ESC operates nine programs in the county for students with specialized needs. It serves 43 school districts in total, including Cincinnati.

The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by the advocacy group Disability Rights Ohio in 2021 on behalf of two students enrolled at Warren County ESC by their public school districts.

Disability Rights Ohio Senior Attorney Kristin Hildebrant says the group's inquiries found significant violations of state law. An investigation by the Ohio Department of Education revealed all 43 districts sending students to the Warren County ESC had at least one violation.

Hildebrant says the most notable violations were the center's lack of adequate Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, and positive behavioral interventions.

"We identified a lot of problems with IEPs not being appropriately written and not including the right information for the children," Hildebrant said. "Many of these children have behavioral issues, which is a primary reason why a child would get sent to the ESC, but they weren't getting appropriate behavioral support."

The ODE's investigation also showed the center was not properly evaluating students with suspected disabilities prior to being placed in the program, in addition to a lack of access to non-academic or extra-curricular activities.

Disability Rights Ohio says more than half of the students reviewed by the Department of Education in the investigation lacked access to instruction to address their individual needs. At least 53 students did not have adequate justification for being placed in the ESC.

Warren County ESC Superintendent Tom Isaacs declined an interview, but said in a statement, "The Governing Board of the Warren County Educational Service Center (the "ESC") has been made aware of special education findings and corrective action issued by the Ohio Department of Education to more than forty school districts who utilize our specialized programs. It is important to emphasize that no abuse or neglect of students was found. The findings involve paperwork issues that ODE found with student records. The ESC and school districts dispute most of the findings. Those we don't dispute will be promptly corrected. As for the findings that are in dispute, the ESC has engaged with the Ohio Department of Education leadership to hopefully resolve the matter without litigation. The ESC will have no further comment on this matter until it is resolved."

Although the Warren County ESC was under investigation, each of the 43 school districts that work with the ESC is ultimately responsible for educating its students. As a part of the state's corrective action plan, every district will now be ordered by the Department of Education to attend professional development programs on IEPs and what's known as "Free Appropriate Public Education." Ninety-one students will each receive an average of 57 hours of compensatory education to make up for IEP services they did not initially receive.

As a result of the investigation, the Ohio Department of Education will work with Warren County ESC and the local school districts to achieve ODE's corrective action plan, providing assistance and oversight to help districts meet their standards.

Originally, the ESC and the local school districts had until Dec. 1 of this year to fully address these issues. However, in a message sent to each school's superintendent Jan. 30, the ODE said all deadlines were paused indefinitely and will be updated at a later date.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.