Education Law Insights

Headed Toward a Short Circuit? Robots, Special Education Students, and Legal Risks

Posted by EdLaw on January 14, 2016

When I was a kid, I loved the movie Short Circuit. (I know: I’m both dating myself and making you question my taste in movies). I always wondered if the day would come when I would have my own walking, talking robot friend like good old Jimmy Five. We aren’t quite there yet, but today you can buy a Roomba™ to roll around cleaning your living room (and even control it with your phone), and yes that was the drone your neighbor got for Christmas flying around your back yard, so I’d say we are a lot closer today than we were in 1986. In the special education realm, we are even closer, with a host of robot products available to help special education students in their educational pursuits. Of course, their use raises the question: Are school leaders taking the necessary precautions to keep from turning our robot dream into a legal nightmare? Since I am speaking at LRP’s Special Education School Attorneys Conference this week in Austin, Texas, I thought this was a perfect time to think about the intersection between technology and special education, so here are my thoughts on robots in school.

First, some examples of how robots are being used for special education purposes. For those of you who subscribe to LRP’s Special Ed Connection service, you can read a recent article there on the topic of robots used to help students who cannot attend class face-to-face. And there are also stories of dancing robots redefining special education inclusion and the ASK NAO robot that can help students with autism develop social skills.

What are the legal concerns that should be considered with robots in the special education realm? Here are a few considerations:

  1. If a robot records the classroom, be cognizant of student records concerns under FERPA or state laws, like Illinois’s School Student Records Act. Remember, however, that with respect to other recording devices for special education students, OCR has taken the position that under Section 504, student use of a recording device cannot be conditioned on a release from other students in the classroom or the parents of those students. One would assume OCR would take the same position with a recording robot, as well. Fairfield-Suisun (CA) Unified School District (OCR San Francisco Mar. 30, 2012).
  2. Even if there is no recording, if the robot transmits a “live feed” of the classroom to a student in a remote location, who will be watching the recording and where? Although student records concerns may not be implicated because there is no “record” created, privacy considerations may still come into play, especially if there is not some level of control by the school over who is watching the feed. Deal with these issues in your written agreement with the student and his/her guardian.
  3. Carefully understand the robot maker’s security controls to prevent an outsider hacking into the recording or feed on a robot. You put together security concerns about baby monitors with live internet feeds and concerns about the safety of education technology products more generally, and you can see why security would be a top concern for me (and should be for school leaders, too) when it comes to robots in the special education realm. Make sure to review carefully, preferably with assistance of legal counsel, any agreement or terms of service with the company to make sure security is top notch.
  4. What data, if any, does the company operating a robot see or retain? By now, we’ve all heard reports of the pitfalls that come with the spread of education applications and services that store or use student data. Again, a careful review of the contract or agreement with the company should be sufficient to address these concerns.
  5. If a student is allowed to take a robot home, remember the importance of an agreement with the student and his/her guardian about caring for school property, acceptable use of the technology, and other expectations.
  6. Finally, what notice should be given to parents of other students? To teachers and staff (and their unions)? In my experience, any recording or transmission of the classroom can lead to raised antennas by parents and teachers alike. And parents may also want to know generally what technology students are using the classroom, even if there is no transmission or recording. But notification must balance the rights of privacy of other students, so as always take care.

As usual, this emerging technology offers real value in the schoolhouse. It’s exciting to see how clients and friends are innovating and using robots in powerful ways. If we all keep in mind the legal considerations that may arise with these robots, we will be in the best position to avoid conflict or concerns down the road and avoid our own legal “short circuit.”


District Must Reimburse Special Education Student for Data Plan Required by Private Residential School

Posted by EdLaw on May 28, 2015

Those who follow the intersection between special education and technology know there is a dearth of administrative decisions and case law addressing what, if any, responsibility school districts have to provide or otherwise pay for technology for special education students. A recent administrative decision from Massachusetts sheds some light on this murky area. The case was unique because rather than addressing whether a device was “assistive technology” necessary to provide the student a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), it was looking at whether the district had complied with a hearing officer decision requiring it to reimburse for tuition and related expenditures for a unilateral private residential placement. Nonetheless, because the case addressed when technology might be an essential part of a special education student’s program, it’s worth a read for school leaders who deal with these issues.

The case involved a highly intelligent special education student with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, and related issues. In an earlier administrative decision, a hearing officer found that the student’s school district, Barnstable Public School, was required to reimburse the student’s parents for their unilateral placement of the student at a private residential school, Franklin Academy, which the student began attending after the parents disagreed with the school district’s proposed high school placement for the student. Following that decision, Barnstable reimbursed the parents in full for tuition payments they made to Franklin Academy and expressed willingness to reimburse the parents for certain transportation expenses. The school district disputed, however, whether it was required to pay the parents for numerous “related expenses,” including certain technology expenses. Specifically, the parents asked for $11,224 for reimbursement for an Apple laptop computer, an iPad, and iPhone, audiobooks, various accessories, data plans, software, apps, phone fees, and other similar expenses. The parents argued that the items at issue were components of “special education” and/or “related services,” and, therefore, must be provided at no cost to the parent. (more…)

Special Education: Which School Is Responsible for Evaluating a Private School Student?

Posted by Brian Crowley on September 21, 2012

In a recent ISBE Superintendent’s Message, school districts were reminded that it’s the time of year when districts should be planning to complete annual, timely and meaningful consultation (TMC) with private schools and families of home-schooled students with disabilities. ISBE encouraged school districts to complete the TMC by no later than October 15, 2012, and to submit documentation of the TMC by November 1, 2012. ISBE also reminded school districts that the specific steps for conducting TMC can be found in ISBE’s guidance memos—Supplemental Guidance Information To Memorandum #05-7 (August 11, 2005) Regarding The Non-Public Proportionate Share (April 21, 2006) and Special Education Services For Parentally Placed Private School Children With Disabilities (June 25, 2006), and that ISBE has an affirmation form available for school district use.

A review of the ISBE guidance materials raises a related and interesting issue relating to special education evaluations for private school students. When a student resides in school district A, but attends a private (non special-education) school located in school district B, which school district has the responsibility to evaluate the student? (more…)