Education Matters: Del Mar Union found out of compliance with special education laws


An investigation conducted by the California Department of Education concluded that the Del Mar Union School District has been out of compliance with requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under 34 CFR Section 300.502(b)(2).

Marsha Sutton
(Copyright of Marsha Sutton)

The complaint consisted of two allegations of violations of the law and was filed by Del Mar Union parent Danielle Roybal against the school district. As representatives of the district, DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg and DMUSD Special Education Director Nadine Schick were named.

The CDE complaint, received Feb. 13, 2023 and finalized April 12, 2023, found that the Del Mar Union School District failed to meet federal special education requirements, is out of compliance, and must take corrective action to comply with federal laws.

The attorney handling Roybal’s case, Matthew Storey, said in a statement, “Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a parent has the right to request an assessment be done independently when the school has conducted an assessment. This is an important check and balance to ensure disabled students and their families are treated fairly and have access to an appropriate education.”

He said the CDE ruled that the Del Mar Union School District “has illegally been denying disabled students and their parents needed assessments” and has ordered the district to take a number of corrective actions.

Those include stopping the non-compliant practice, training staff on how to respond appropriately to such requests, and providing compensatory education, similar to damages, to the student “to make up for lost services.”

As proof that the district is taking corrective action to address its out-of-compliance practices, the CDE is requiring the district to submit acceptable evidence.

According to the report, the DMUSD may request reconsideration of the CDE findings within 30 days of April 12.

As of press time, the district has not responded to several requests for comment on the matter – nor whether the district is challenging the findings.

Storey said he doubts the district has filed for reconsideration, saying the DMUSD has already begun complying with the order.

He said the district is paying for the independent assessments in the CDE’s order and believes “they have also stopped denying assessments.”

Roybal’s complaint was filed on behalf of one student, but Storey said the ruling has implications for other special needs children as well.

“This pertains to one student but will impact them all moving forward,” he said.

Silently suffered

“This is a big deal,” Roybal said. “It really shows negligence. Proper services and assessments for children in DMUSD have been denied for years. Now DMUSD is being forced by a regulatory body to do the right thing.

“What is further concerning is that I made the board aware of this in my September public comments last year and the board failed to act upon it.”

Roybal said that, because of the district’s failure to follow the law and provide proper assessments, special needs children for years have “silently suffered without the proper services.”

“Thinking of all the children that lost services on [the board’s] watch is maddening,” she said.

Last September, Roybal spoke to the board about the requirement under state law that students with disabilities have the right to programs that promote maximum interaction with the general school population in a least restrictive environment.

That means that children with disabilities are to be educated with children who are not disabled, to the maximum extent possible, unless the severity of the disability requires separate educational conditions.

“You are supposed to start in the general education classroom and provide aids and supports for the child,” Roybal explained. “DMUSD does it the opposite way.”

Instead, the district places the child in the most impacted classes and makes the child “earn their way into general education classes,” she said.

This, she said, is not the law.

Teacher survey

Roybal has frequently referenced an in-house survey conducted last year of the district’s special education staff which indicated widespread dissatisfaction and possible illegalities.

In a memo sent to DMUSD trustees on March 25, 2022, Del Mar California Teachers Association president Kevin Cunha shared the results of the survey, which he said had 100% participation and “was conducted in response to a number of ongoing concerns centered around district leadership decision-making and its impact on students and staff.”

Some findings were particularly alarming. “I want to make you aware that our staff members are making allegations of legal and ethical violations on the part of our special education leadership team,” Cunha wrote at the time.

Asked to respond to current conditions, Cunha referred to his public comments made at the recent January school board meeting, when he said, “I would like to voice my appreciation for the efforts made by both our administration and special education staff to move in a positive direction after what transpired last spring.

“Although we haven’t reached the finish line, so to speak, we have definitely cleared some hurdles and are moving in the right direction.”

Roybal said some concerns have been addressed, but a number of problems have continued, although some to a lesser degree.

She said those include: fear of retaliation for speaking up, teams told to improperly change students’ disability categories, school psychologists directed to manipulate student data, exceptions made for some students and not others, and needed levels of student support inaccurately documented.

“People are not being held accountable,” Roybal said, of the administrative team that oversees special education. “Many of them are not for kids. Changes need to be made. Hopefully our CDE complaint corrects some of it.”

Roybal, who came in fourth for three open school board seats in last November’s election and was not appointed by the school board in April to fill a vacancy, has frequently addressed the board and criticized district leadership for its improper special education practices.

With her focus on getting the school district to follow the law and treat special needs students appropriately and with dignity, it’s no wonder why the board majority and the superintendent refused to consider her for the board.

With this CDE ruling, Roybal’s efforts to expose the district’s lack of compliance with the law will help current and future special education students receive the support they need.

What’s sad is thinking of past students who were denied their proper legal rights in the district for years.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at

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