To view earlier installations of this series, visit:
Portrait of a Systemic Complaint, Part I: Parents’ Complaint Against Fairfax County Public Schools
Portrait of a Systemic Complaint, Part II: Virginia Department of Education’s Notice of Complaint
Portrait of a Systemic Complaint, Part III: Virginia Dept. of Ed. Bends Rules for Fairfax County Public SchoolsPart III of this series discussed the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) extending Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) deadline for responding to the Notice of Complaint (NOC) issued by VDOE. It discussed, too, FCPS missing the extended deadline and VDOE accepting FCPS’ late submission, even though VDOE’s NOC states, in bolded type:
Both the school division’s response and supporting documentation must be provided by the response due date in order to be considered for review by this office. Should the supporting documentation not be included, our review will rest on the documentation submitted by the response due date.
What Happened Next?A complete clustermuck is what happened next. A fiasco. A failure of enormous proportions. A farce to rival even Shakespeare’s greatest works. A comedy of errors. A catastrophe. A collapse of communication, of professionalism, and of procedural safeguards. A colossal mess. What follows are just a “few” of the emails that were exchanged. If you make it to the bottom of this article, you’ll be glad they weren’t all included (and grateful that I summarized a few, instead of including them in full).
6.15.20:Four days after the extended time deadline (and before it received FCPS’s full response itself), VDOE emailed:
LEA has advised that it has transmitted the remained attachments (stored on thumb drives) included in its response to the May 18, 2020, Notice of Complaint.I emailed VDOE, asking about the next due date, which was for “additional information”, and which was set for 6.18.20, would be extended, given all of FCPS’s delays. VDOE did not respond.
6.16.20:1:16 PM: I emailed VDOE. I asked about the “additional information” deadline again and advised it about issues with FCPS’s thumb drives:
VDOE stated it is going to extend timelines, yet VDOE is MIA on providing any information on what those timelines will be. We’re now 24 hours out from when parents have to mail additional information for the original add info deadline – and yet we haven’t all received the information submitted by the LEA in full. I received a physically broken thumbdrive yesterday. After business hours, [Parent 1], received a thumbdrive that shut down her computer and set of that spiraling circle of death. [Parent 2] and [Parent 3] received thumbdrives yesterday. [Parent 4] has not received a thumbdrive. . . .2:26 PM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline.
We have been advised that two parents identified in the May 8, 2020, Notice of Complaint received LEA’s remaining response materials via thumbdrives, but that these thumbdrives were either inoperative or damaged. We ask that the remaining parents advise this office of receipt and access to these remaining response materials. VDOE’s mailroom did not receive a thumbdrive on Monday, June 15, 2020. Further, due to COVID-19 restrictions, our mailroom will not be accessible until Wednesday, June 17, 2020. We ask that the parents advise this office and LEA of their respective receipt of/access to the remaining LEA response materials. Once we have confirmed receipt of accessible materials by all parties, we will (i) establish a revised additional information timeline that incorporates the delay from the June 11, 2020, date, permitting all parties time to prepare and submit any additional information relevant to the specific allegations and (ii) advise all parties accordingly. In the meantime, the parties are again encouraged to examine the materials already transmitted, which include LEA’s narrative response. We again remind the parties that Dropbox is not available for further submissions. We encourage all parties to use email/attachments; thumbdrives; facsimile; or transmission of hard copies via USPS or other delivery service. Finally, we ask that LEA promptly address delivery of accessible materials to the parents who have indicated receipt of inoperative/damaged materials and advise this office accordingly. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact this office.2:41 PM: I emailed VDOE and requested the additional information revised deadline and stated:
I reiterate: In NO WAY should this impact the 60 day timeline for investigations. We DO NOT approve for that deadline to be changed. ***Note, too, that VDOE admits problems with its mailroom. VDOE’s mailroom has long been a problem. I would hate to pay to rush something to VDOE, only to find out that its mailroom doesn’t work again.4:21 PM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline.
To the parties: As we have advised, once we have confirmed receipt of accessible materials by all parties, we will (ii) advise all parties accordingly. Stated more simply, because all parties were entitled to a week (five business days) following receipt of LEA’s response to provide additional information, it is anticipated that we will provide a week from the date of confirmed receipt of that information. We will advise the parties of the revised timeline upon confirmation of receipt of the materials.5:10 PM: I emailed VDOE and requested the revised additional information deadline. 9:05 PM: One of the other parents responded:
I am able to open all attachments; however the attachments submitted as “outlook” documents can only be opened using Microsoft Outlook. These include all documents in the following folder: Attachment 12_2 > Attachment 12_2 > c [Student Name] > Emails. This may be problematic for any parties who do not have a Microsoft Outlook account.9:42 PM: I emailed VDOE again about the file issue brought up by the other parents and the fact that VDOE had not allowed such files to be submitted in the past. 9:53 PM: Another parent emailed about the thumb drive:
I received the usb drive today. I can not open the zip files with Outlook emails on them.10:48 PM: Another parent emailed about the thumb drive:
I received the thumb drive but I am unable to open the files.11:34 PM: FCPS finally weighed in on the conversation. Dawn Schaefer emailed:
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) submitted its response to the May 18, 2020, Notice of Complaint on June 11, 2020. FCPS was also able to submit 68 of the 74 attachments by that same date. Six attachments were too large to be emailed, even after the files were compressed. As a result, those six attachments were saved to thumb drives and mailed to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and each complainant on June 13, 2020, well within the time period for additional information, as noted in the May 18, 2020, Notice of Complaint, and confirmed in Ms. Harris’s June 15, 2020 (3:08 p.m.), email. The thumb drives were tested prior to mailing, but if you experience difficulty opening the drive, please let us know so we can provide a replacement.
6.17.20:I emailed VDOE about FCPS being allowed to provide files in a format that VDOE had prohibited less than a year earlier:
[Parent #1] pointed out that FCPS sent Outlook files, which aren’t accessible by individuals not using Outlook. Outlook files come across saved as “msg” files. . . . attached is a 9.9.19 email to me, from VDOE, indicating what happens when VDOE tries to open msg files – and a directive that I “(i) send hard copies of these documents via U.S. mail; (ii) transmit these documents via facsimile to 804-786-8520; or (iii) scan and email these materials to our office for inclusion in the record.” The latter two options are indicative of VDOE’s dinosaur status. I haven’t used a fax machine in at least 10 years and emails that are saved as msg are obviously already digitized, so rather than suggesting they be scanned and emailed, all they had to do was suggest they be emailed and/or saved as a PDF and then transmitted. . . . I’m certain FCPS has responded to more complaints than I’ve written, so this can’t possibly be the first time the msg issue has come up with FCPS. If it isn’t, then why did FCPS provide an unauthorized format? If it is, why does VDOE accept msg files from FCPS but not parents?6:54 AM: I emailed VDOE and requested a revised additional information deadline and full access to FCPS’ response for all parents. 3:44 PM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline. VDOE confirmed that 1) it received FCPS’ thumb drive; and 2) could access, and was accepting, a file format that it previously couldn’t access and wouldn’t accept. In addition, it put the responsibility of obtaining FCPS’ full response on the parents, during a period where many places were still closed due to COVID.
to the parties: VDOE has received LEA’s thumbdrive containing Attachments 8c, 8d, 12a, 12b, 12c, and 12d.Â Â VDOE has successfully accessed and downloaded these materials, completing LEA’s response. It is our understanding that 4 of 5 parents identified in the investigation were unable to access the thumbdrives they received. By way of this post, we ask that the parties promptly coordinate to ensure delivery of the remaining files as soon as possible. We ask that LEA and parents confirm this delivery and access. Should the identified parents wish to coordinate among themselves to obtain the remaining attachments, they may certainly do so. Again, we ask that all parents confirm access/delivery. Again, the parties (LEA and identified parents] will be given the one-week period to which they were previously entitled to provide additional information; the specific due date will be calculated upon confirmation of delivery/receipt of the remaining LEA materials by parents. We look forward to updates regarding delivery completion.
6.18.20:12:11 AM: Dawn Schaefer of FCPS emailed:
The remaining files were shared with the complainants via Dropbox. Please confirm receipt.10:10 AM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline. It confirmed that it received FCPS’ thumb drive:
to the parties: As this office advised yesterday, VDOE received LEA’s thumbdrive containing Attachments 8c, 8d, 12a, 12b, 12c, and 12d. VDOE successfully accessed and downloaded these materials, completing LEA’s response. LEA has now advised that it has made these attachments available to parents via Dropbox. While VDOE is unable to accept materials via Dropbox, we have encouraged LEA and parents to collaborate to ensure delivery of the remaining materials. Dropbox may be one method to do so. Again, we request that parents confirm with this office their respective receipt and access to these remaining items as soon as practicable. We will then confirm the adjusted additional information timeline for all parties. We look forward to updates regarding delivery completion.10:44 AM: I emailed VDOE. I asked 1) why it accepted msg files from FCPS but had prohibited parents from submitting them in the past; 2) why FCPS could use Dropbox, but VDOE prohibited parents from using Dropbox; and again requested full access to FCPS’ response for all parents. . 11:49 AM: Dawn Schaefer of FCPS emailed:
I emailed just after midnight to confirm that the remaining attachments had been shared with the complainants via Dropbox. I saw this morning that [Parent] requested a link to the attachments in Dropbox. This link: [link] will only work for the complainants as it is tied to their email addresses.12:08 PM: I emailed VDOE. I stated that 1) although I could usually access msg files, I couldn’t access FCPS’ msg files; 2) that there were issues with another file; and 3) I asked that someone speak with FCPS about making all of its response accessible to all parents. 2:17 PM: I emailed VDOE and asked if it could make it a priority to ask FCPS to provide all parents access to all of FCPS’ response. 4:19 PM: The one parent who had been able to access files on the thumb drive sent to her, emailed VDOE, to make it aware that at least one document she viewed about her child contained incorrect information. 4:52 PM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline. It advised that parents should coordinate with FCPS to access documents; that the parent who advised VDOE of incorrect data should request to “amend student records” per 8 VAC 20-81-170.G.6; and that it would be closed 6.18.20 (for which I assumed it meant 6.19.20). 5:45 PM: I emailed FCPS, VDOE, U.S. DOE, the VA Governor’s Office, and the parents about FCPS’ failure to provide not just fully accessible files, but accurate files.
See the attached two emails – one from a parent and the other from VDOE. VDOE wants the parents and LEA to work together, for parents to obtain the response from the LEA in full. However, to date, the LEA hasn’t done anything unless specifically asked by VDOE. Could VDOE please specifically ask that the LEA provide the documents in a format accessible by everyone? As I have said numerous times, FCPS provided documents in a format that VDOE has previously refused to accept from parents. I’ve already made this request from FCPS, and FCPS has not responded. In addition, when [Parent] pointed out incorrect information in what was provided by the LEA to VDOE, VDOE’s response was to ask for a record amendment. That’s exactly what she tried to do. How is VDOE going to do a thorough investigation if the material provided to it by the LEA is incorrect – in addition to be late? I’ve spotted other errors, too.5:53 PM: Dawn Schaefer of FCPS emailed:
Hello, Per your request, the files in Attachment 8d have been unzipped and uploaded individually [Link Name], and the Outlook messages (Attachment 12c) were uploaded as PDFs [Link Name] Both were shared with you via Dropbox a few moments ago. Please let us know if you continue to have issues accessing the files.
6.19.20:4:59 PM: I emailed FCPS, VDOE, and the parents that documents referred to in FCPS’ narrative were missing. 5:10 PM: I emailed FCPS, VDOE, and the parents that more documents referred to in FCPS’ narrative were missing. 5:15 PM: I emailed FCPS, VDOE, and the parents that even more documents referred to in FCPS’ narrative were missing.
6.22.2011:19 AM: I emailed VDOE and requested full access to FCPS’ response for all parents. 5:35 PM: I emailed VDOE and requested full access to FCPS’ response for all parents, as well as the revised additional information deadline. 7:26 PM: VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline.
Absent a specific indication by Complainant/Parent and other identified parents communicated to this officeÂ no later than 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, regarding an inability to access any particular, named attachment specifically provided in LEA’s response materials (via email, thumbdrive, or Dropbox) (rather than assertions regarding items LEA omitted), we anticipate advising the parties of the adjusted timeline for the submission of additional information sometime tomorrow, Tuesday, June 23, 2020.Â
6.23.20:8:02 AM: I emailed VDOE and requested full access to FCPS’ response for all parents. In addition, I stated a number of problems to date:
To date, parents have not been able to fully access the LEA’s response. In addition, the LEA cites attachments within its response that it did not actually provide. VDOE’s email states, ” We remind all parties that our office retains discretion to request clarifications from all parties and will do so as it deems necessary to ensure a comprehensive investigation.” I, and other parents, remain skeptical of this. Already, one parent cited a document that contained incorrect data about her child – a document that the LEA created for its response to VDOE. VDOE’s response was to advise parent to request a change of record. VDOE’s response should have been to request that FCPS provide a correct record – especially after parent provided proof that it was not correct. How can VDOE do a comprehensive investigation when it won’t even ask FCPS for corrected documents? In addition, in going through the narrative version of the LEA’s response, the LEA cites specific attachments, yet those attachments weren’t provided – at least not to the parents. How can a full investigation be done if the LEA doesn’t even provide the documents on which it makes its statements? This isn’t a FOIA request, as VDOE also seems to misunderstand. This is a request that VDOE hold the LEA responsible for providing its response on time, in full, and in a manner accessible to all parents. In the past, the LEA has always printed out and sent copies of its attachments. This is the first time in all the years I’ve been submitting complaints, that the LEA emailed such a large number of attachments – and then it couldn’t even do that correctly. This, of course, isn’t the first time FCPS has been late. FCPS being late has nothing to do with COVID. That’s just FCPS’s M.O. So now, VDOE has received confirmation that parents are still have issues accessing the files. DAYS AGO, at least one parent asked for a printout to be provided. NEITHER FCPS OR VDOE responded. Yet, VDOE said in the attached email that it wants an answer by today on parents’ inability to access any particular attachments. VDOE has been advised of this numerous times already. At what point does VDOE monitor the situation in full? At what point does VDOE hold the LEA fully accountable? At what point does VDOE stop treating LEA’s differently from parents?11:38 PM VDOE emailed. VDOE did not provide a revised additional information deadline. VDOE continued to indicate that it didn’t understand that parents were having issues with a majority of, or all of, FCPS’ files (depending on the parents). It ignored, too that one of the parents had already requested a paper version. And . . . Drum roll please . . . VDOE announced it was extending the 60 day timeline due to “extenuating circumstances”.
Finally, the 60-day timeline for the completion of the investigation will be extended due to exceptional circumstances (8 VAC 20-81-200)(e.g., inter alia, complex and comprehensive nature of investigation; inaccessibility of staff, technology, and necessary materials due to building closures and other health and safety conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic; parents’ respective inability to access response materials).Â We will advise of the revised timeline as soon as practicable.11:50 AM: I emailed VDOE about it allowing FCPS to be late, and the issues created by both VDOE and FCPS ignoring the parents:
The parents on this complaint have communicated almost daily to make everyone aware of the problems. Instead, VDOE and FCPS ignored us. Days passed without VDOE or FCPS responding. Instead, VDOE continued to err on the side of the LEA, as it so often has – extending the LEA’s deadline, accepting a late response from the LEA, and then failing to respond when parents repeatedly expressed issues with accessing the response provided by the LEA. AND: When parents pointed out factual problems with the VDOE response, rather than VDOE asking FCPS to provide correct documents for the investigation, it advised that parent should request a file amendment. This indicates that VDOE isn’t interested in investigating the facts itself. Again, I ask that this be taken out of the hands of Sam Hollins, Pat Haymes, and their staff. Going over the 60 day timeline is dangerous, as VDOE took almost a year to respond the last time it did that to me personally. Please put children first instead of the LEA or your jobs. At a minimum, FOLLOW THE LAW.
6.24.2010:04 AM I emailed VDOE again and stated that parents had asked over and over again for paper copies (since FCPS’ digital files continued to be a problem), which is how FCPS usually provides its response. I again took issue with the 60-day timeline being erased.
6.25.209:34 AM I emailed VDOE. I reminded VDOE that it hadn’t met its own deadlines.
In the attached email, you advised that you would make everyone aware of the new additional information deadline no later than noon on 6.24.20. You didn’t do that. Noon on 6.24.20, also was the deadline you set for parents to make you aware of any continued issues with accessing the LEA’s response. We did that. When is the additional information deadline? When will all parents be provided full access to all of the LEA’s response?VDOE did not respond.
6.26.2010:04 AM: I emailed VDOE and again requested full access to FCPS’ response for all parents, as well as the revised additional information deadline. 1:41 PM: I emailed VDOE, U.S. DOE, the governor’s office, and the parents:
It’s now Friday afternoon. A systemic complaint is on hold because of FCPS and VDOE. Parents continue to proactively communicate. FCPS and VDOE continue to remain silent. What must parents do in order to 1) receive responses from VDOE and FCPS and 2) have their concerns fully investigated and addressed? If someone could respond, that would be helpful.4:44 PM: VDOE emailed and provided a revised timeline for the additional information and made a curious remark about how it had “attempted to broker an equitable resolution to concerns regarding parents’ access to LEA response materials. . . .”
To the parties: For the past two weeks, we have attempted to broker an equitable resolution to concerns regarding parents’ access to LEA response materials, which LEA transmitted to parents via email, thumbdrive, and dropbox. Our attempts have failed. Accordingly, we now request that LEA provide Complainant/Parent and each identified parent print copies of all response materials (with the exception of any audio or video recordings). LEA is to ensure these materials are delivered to these individuals on or before midnight Monday, July 6, 2020. To be clear, we do not direct the additional transmission of audio or video recordings LEA has already provided. Further, at this time, we find no identified need to dictate a conversion of such previously delivered materials to transcript/written format. However, should we determine the need to examine and consider these audio or video materials to complete our investigation, we will advise the parties accordingly and ensure equity of access. The new timeline for all parties–parents and LEA–to submit additional information to this office and each other is 5:00 p.m (DST) Monday, July 13, 2020.In what struck me as ironic, VDOE ended its email with:
Finally, additional information and/or materials submitted after this adjusted timeline will not be considered by this office, unless specifically requested by ODRAS for the purposes of clarification.There it is. That familiar verbiage from VDOE documents. The very same messaging that it states but doesn’t follow.
Thank you for sharing this. What recourse do parents have to hold DOE accountable when they break their own rules?
Kelly, Thank you for your comment. Parents can contact their state representative with the U.S. Dept. of Ed.’s (USDOE) Office of Special Education Programming (OSEP), which is responsible for monitoring and supporting states’ implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A contact list can be found here: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/monitor/state-contact-list.html While OSEP doesn’t monitor a specific county, school district, etc. within a state, it does monitor the state education agency. For example, Virginia parents contacted OSEP repeatedly about long-time, recurring noncompliance in school districts throughout the state. Although OSEP didn’t address the actions of each county, it did address the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) failures to ensure compliance with IDEA and in 2020 issues a Differentiated Monitoring Support letter (DMS) on Virginia. VDOE had 90 to come into compliance, yet two years ago had failed to do so. When this happened in Texas, funding was pulled from the state. You can find the DMS letters and reports for Virginia, Texas, and other states here: https://www2.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/dmsrpts/index.html