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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island parents of special needs students have a clear message: they need help.

On Wednesday, parents and their children joined teachers and advocates in urging lawmakers on the R.I. House Education Committee to support a bill that would create a special education watchdog.

“I think it’s a really important step forward,” Rhode Island Kids Count’s Leanne Barrett said.

The bill establishes an ombudsman for special education in Rhode Island. The ombudsman and their office would provide independent oversight and make sure school districts meet the standards required to comply with individualized education programs, or IEPs, for students with disabilities.

The ombudsman’s office, modeled after the Office of the Child Advocate, would also collect data and feedback from parents and help them resolve any potential disputes with school districts.

“In too many cases, parents feel left out,” said Rep. Lauren Carson, the bill’s sponsor. “They feel as though they don’t have the resources to fully address and be competent enough to understand what the IEP process is.”

Several parents who testified at the hearing said their children were denied services or mistreated. They agreed that an ombudsman would have been able to stick up for them.

“My daughter Rachel went without an IEP from 2017 to 2023. No IEP. No services. No nothing,” Mary McDonough said. “Rhode Island failed my daughter. They failed us as a family.”

“I just can’t help but think, if she had gotten services when she needed them, would she have had more of a childhood?” said Richard Cassino, who testified while sitting next his daughter Ava. “Could I have taken her to Disney if I wanted to?”

Some who testified in support of the bill referenced a Target 12 investigation that found dozens of special needs students in Providence were not getting services they needed.

Those who oppose the bill agree that the issues need to be addressed, but question whether creating a new office would be the best solution.

“There are models out there with ombudsmen that I think can work,” Tim Ryan of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association said. “But I think we have to be realistic about the funding, and say, ‘Where do we marshal our finances and assets to accomplish the most good for our kids?’”

David Sienko with the Office of Student, Community and Academic Supports at the Rhode Island Department of Education suggested instead of creating an ombudsman office, the state direct funding to implement “facilitated IEPs.”

Sienko said the process has already been implemented in other states, including Massachusetts, in which a facilitator supports parents and school officials come up with the best IEP for the student, while helping to resolve any potential disputes early in the IEP discussions.

“I do appreciate the idea that our sponsor of this bill is requesting that this be an independent body, because I agree with that,” said Sienko. “I think having the IEP facilitators not part of RIDE, not part of a school district, not part of an organization but independent, I think would be an important message to the community.”

This is the fourth time the bill has been proposed. There were no votes taken at Wednesday’s hearing.

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