The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) halted state complaints filed by parents in Chesterfield and Page Counties because the parents used Google Drive to submit their evidence.
In a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) dated June 28, 2023, VDOE initial advised the Page County parent:
While the email indicates that Parent properly attached a sufficient state complaint, the Commonwealth of Virginia no longer partners with Google and cannot access/open any Google documents. Please resubmit the complaint to our office using another format such as OneDrive, which is supported by Microsoft Office. . . . This office cannot move forward to investigate Parent’s concerns until the above-noted deficiencies are addressed. If appropriate, the complaint may be resubmitted to this office for action. All resubmitted complaints will be treated as new complaints and are subject to review.
State complaints have a one-year statute of limitations. According to the parent, having to refile would put his complaint outside the one-year timeline, which means it would be denied as time barred upon resubmission—just because VDOE refused to access Google Drive.
Upon receipt of the LOI, the Page County parent emailed VDOE. At about 2 pm on June 28th, Compliance Specialist Dr. Latisha Woodford, who works in VDOE's Office of Dispute Resolution, responded:
The Office of Dispute Resolution and Administrative Services received your email regarding the state complaint for your partial consent to your child’s IEP. Unfortunately, the complaint form was submitted using Google docs. While we understand that Google docs provides a great platform for submitting large documents, our office can no longer open/access any Google Documents because the Commonwealth of Virginia is now contracting with Microsoft Office.
Please resubmit the form to our office using another format such as OneDrive. You may also wish to fax the form and any accompanying documentation to (804) 786-8520 or mail the form to the address provided on the State Special Education Complaint Form attached. As a formality, I have also attached our Letter of Inquiry and copied the school division. Feel free to contact our office if you have any additional questions or concerns.
About 15 minutes later, the Page County parent emailed Woodford:
Everything was submitted in pdf format, including the google drive link to simply download a pdf file. There were no google docs links. I will forward the original submission to you immediately.
As a letter of inquiry was returned, when I resubmit, does that mean VDOE is then going to say past the 365 day mark wheb [sic] it was received on time?
Could you please send me the law, policy, or statute that states submissions must be in a specific vendor's format?
Woodford did not respond.
Nothing in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), implementing regulations, or in VDOE's own dispute resolution procedures, limit (or exclude) electronic transmissions of state complaints to specific vendors.
Eventually, the parent forwarded information about VDOE refusing to open the complaint to someone outside of VDOE, who in turn forwarded the email to VDOE's new Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Lisa Coons. At almost noon the following day, Woodford responded to the Page County parent:
First and foremost, I apologize for our office’s oversight. When the email was forwarded to me for processing, the attachment was apparently not included. In processing the complaint, I only received the link, which did not include an option to download. Instead, the link immediately routed me to the Google Sign in page and prompted me to continue to Google Drive. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Virginia recently migrated from Google to Microsoft, and our information security policies no longer allow us to access Google docs. We have reached out to our information technology leadership, but have been advised that no exceptions can be made.
Since you submitted the complaint initially on June 21, 2023, at 11:54 p.m., our office received an additional copy of the complaint from another individual on June 28, 2023, at 7:06 p.m. It included a seven-page State Special Education Complaint Form and 59 additional pages. We are working diligently to process the complaint. The complaint receive date will be June 22, 2023, as the initial email was received on June 21, 2023, at 11:54 p.m. We are also working to draft a communication that will be published on the Virginia Department of Education’s website advising parents and school divisions of our inability to access any Google mail, calendar, chat, drive, forms, sheets, and docs.
Again, we apologize for any inconvenience and look forward to working with you to resolve your complaint.
During a meeting with her a few days later, I asked Dr. Coons if she played a role in VDOE's reversal with the Page County parent and she replied that she wanted to see changes at VDOE, but didn't outwardly say yes or no, and claim credit. I took her answer to be a "yes". The reversal for the one parent is a small change when you look at the big picture of VDOE's problems, but for the parent, the reversal is significant, since it is the difference between accessing and being denied his right to dispute resolution, including his right to file a state complaint.
More Change Needed
Although Coons' helped with the reversal for the Page County parent, it turns out her staff refused Google Drive for submissions for at least two-and-a-half months.
About a week ago, a Chesterfield County parent shared similar Google Drive issues with VDOE. However, hers occurred in mid-April. She submitted her state complaint March 24, 2023. Mid-April, she received the following email from VDOE:
I have been reviewing the complaint materials you submitted to this office. VDOE recently shifted from using Google for state business to Microsoft products. I did not realize that this means that we can no longer access Google Docs from our state computers/accounts. I am unfortunately unable to open your complaint and the other documents that you included as Google Docs. I understand that you have been encountering some issues with technology of your own. If you can send me the complaint form itself, we can continue with our process, and I will work on seeing what we need to do to get your other supporting materials. Thank you.
April 11, 2023, the Chesterfield parent emailed VDOE, advised the yet-to-be-named person behind VDOE's emails (the emails came from a generic VDOE account) that she submitted the files just as she always has, and she protested VDOE putting limits on electronic submissions by refusing complaints submitted using Google Drive.
April 12, 2023, Patricia Haymes, director of VDOE's Office of Dispute Resolution emailed the Chesterfield parent:
Information technology and information security decisions are not made at the agency level. While I understand your frustration, I am unable to open Google Docs because state systems are configured not to allow it. I can offer several alternatives: 1. Download the Google Doc and forward it as an email attachment saved as a word document. 2. Take screen shots or pictures of the document with your cell phone and attach those to the document. 3. Type the pertinent information in an email. 4. Mail the document to the address on the form. 5. Drop the document off at the security desk at our offices: 101 N. 24th Street, Richmond.
Haymes' response illustrates a few of the issues with VDOE:
- Google Drive and Google Docs are not the same thing, so while parents were submitted using Google Drive, VDOE staff kept referring to Google Docs, indicating they thought Drive and Docs to be the same.
- Evidence is often too large to email—even if it's just one document at a time—and becomes expensive to print and mail. VDOE doesn't have its own provider that it can offer to parents, hence, parents use cloud-based services like Google Drive and Dropbox to forward evidence. Office for Civil Rights (OCR), as one example, provides complainants links to Dropbox to upload evidence at no cost to the complainants.
- VDOE's staff are tech illiterate. These two issues are just two on a longer list (another article for another day).
- As director of VDOE's Office of Dispute Resolution, Haymes should have known the problems with limiting state complaint submissions based on VDOE's vendor du jour—especially when there's nothing in VDOE's own guidelines making potential complainants aware of VDOE's limitations and requirements.
- As director of VDOE's Office of Dispute Resolution, Haymes allowed parents' complaints to be stopped for reasons outside of those that govern state complaint procedures.
To date, VDOE hasn't advised what it will be doing to address this issue—or how many other parents were impacted by curious decisions made by VDOE's Office of Dispute Resolution.