Pared down school websites re-launched

Dr. Eric Jones called the PCPS’s websites skeletons of what they once were.

POWHATAN – The various websites run by Powhatan County Public Schools have been successfully re-launched following an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, but what is left is far less than what school staff wanted.

It took several months to finish the investigation with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which was the result of an out-of-state complaint in late 2016 that the websites were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), said Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent.

Jones said he received a letter from the OCR at the end of March saying the school district’s websites were now in compliance and that the investigation was closed. While he is pleased the investigation is over, Jones said he is far from pleased with the “skeleton website” that was left in its wake.

“It is one where a lot of information has been taken down. We don’t feel good about it and we are looking at ways where we can repopulate it in a way where items are still accessible,” Jones said. “That is our next step in the process. Now that this has been resolved and closed, OK, all the information that we had to take down that we couldn’t change immediately, how do we get that information back out to our community so that they can stay informed and we can continue to use this as a strong communication tool?”

Added to that is the concern that getting back those capabilities on the website will be a costly process since most of the services that help make documents and media accessible are commercial products the school district will have to purchase, Jones said.

The school district has already purchased one program, Siteimprove, a website monitoring program that constantly scans the websites against a number of built-in accessibility and content specific standards, said Jeff Durrett, director of administrative technology.

“It alerts us to any new content that is posted that may not be in compliance. We began using it in January to help us identify content that we needed to bring into ADA compliance. Now that the OCR complaint has been cleared, we’ll use it going forward to manage our site, as we train our school webmasters to post compliant content,” he said.

The Office for Civil Rights was contacted for comment but did not respond by press time.

Jones said that there are two silver linings he saw in this investigation. One is that Powhatan County Public Schools now has websites that are accessible and staff members that are much more knowledgeable about ADA compliance in their websites.

Another silver lining is that the school district was able to resolve the investigation and keep its current website intact without having to go to an outside vendor and spend tens of thousands of dollars to build a new website, Jones said. In the coming months and especially over the summer, he is hoping more of the content can be uploaded again and that the website will come “back to life in a way that it provides all the functionality that we want for the community.”

“We are not happy with the website. It provides the basics of communication for our parents, students and the rest of the community, but certainly it is nowhere near as full and informational as we want it to be. That is going to work on in our next steps to bring it back to life,” he said.

Jones had informed the school board about the investigation at its meeting on Dec. 13, 2016, and pointed out that PCPS was one of hundreds that had complaints filed against them by a single individual in Michigan.

The individual, Marcie Lipsitt, contacted the Powhatan Today after an original story ran and later agreed to answer why she had filed the complaint, which she confirmed was one of many. As of Tuesday, April 25, when she responded to an email, Lipsitt said she had filed more than 1,300 federal OCR web accessibility complaints, dating back to January 2016.

Lipsitt said her plan is to “file no fewer than 100 new complaints per month” but that she already exceeded that target in January, February and March and also expected to do so in April.

“Am I tired of this pace? Yes, but it matters because children and adults’ quality of life and access to information is at stake. It matters because the Federal Office for Civil Rights has been underfunded and understaffed their entire existence and now they are investigating more complaints than ever across the U.S. It matters because ‘our civil rights’ are paramount to our democracy,” she said.

Getting the all clear

Getting the all clear on the investigation followed several months of Jones, staff members and the school district’s attorneys working with the OCR by phone and email to make the necessary changes, Jones said. In much of February and March, the OCR representative assigned to Powhatan’s case, Dr. Judith Risch, would review changes being made and provide feedback either to the attorneys or directly to school staff on what had to be changed to make it accessible to people with disabilities or, in many cases, taken down all together.

A letter Risch sent to Jones on March 29 said that the OCR had verified that PCPS had “removed all remaining barriers to access for people with disabilities throughout the division’s website.” Websites originally cited in the complaint were the district’s homepage and pages dealing with the parent resource center, food services, special education, instruction, technology resources, and pages with information on the district and the schools.

Jones said it was disheartening to see so much content that was relative to the school district and the families it serves stripped away. He gave an example of being told at first that video of the school board meetings was not allowed to be posted but audio recordings were approved. However, the OCR later came back and said even those had to be taken down, he said.

The school district always provided minutes to the meetings, but they have been pared down significantly because of the other communication tools, audio recordings and video, being offered, Jones said. PCPS was originally asked to transcribe all of the audio recordings and provide the full transcription in a visually accessible way, but it wasn’t possible with current resources. He said there is no software that does that completely and the school district doesn’t have the staff members or time to dedicate to transcribing meetings that often last one to two hours or more.

“We are looking at a couple of alternatives for the audio and hoping that we can put those back up in a different format as well. Our hope is to get one or both of those forms of communication back up in the near future,” he said.

In another instance, the OCR told the school district the calendars on the website needed to be removed, he said.

“We told him we couldn’t do that, that we had to have a calendar. So we worked through different ways we could make it accessible,” Jones said. “There was a lot of work by my staff to come up with some alternatives, some new ways of presenting information and displaying it. There was some give and take with our attorney and their attorney on what could and could not be displayed.”

Jones said the process was complicated because “there are no set guidelines or definitive information that the Office of Civil Rights provides” that says what is allowed or forbidden.

“We got to the point where we thought we were at a resolution stage, which was always our goal, just to get this resolved and the case closed so that there wouldn’t be any other financial costs or other penalties to the district. Then we would get one more thing we would have to do, and that is why it dragged on for awhile,” he said.

Still, Jones said he was told that Powhatan’s case was resolved “pretty quickly” and that there are some school districts that have been trying to resolve their investigations for six to eight months.

Filing complaints

Lipsitt filed her first complaint in February 2014 against the Michigan Department of Education (DOE) because she was determined to stop what she believed to be a damaging package of proposed revisions to the Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education, along with a very short one-month public comment period that instituted a new online public comment submission, she said. Although she knew little about web accessibility, she suspected her state’s DOE website had accessibility issues for individuals who are blind, low vision, deaf and hard of hearing. The OCR opened an investigation that it would take 15 months to come to an agreement on, she added.

She followed that complaint with more against a community college and several Michigan school districts. In January 2016, she was asked to check the New Mexico DOE website, which she found had accessibility issues. Then she checked New York’s site. Finally she decided to check all 50 state departments of education and found “47 had accessibility issues.” She said only Virginia and Minnesota had accessible websites.

From there, she has checked large school districts, universities, libraries, and state schools for the blind, deaf and hard of hearing, Lipsitt said. She said she knows when she checks the first page of a website if it has accessibility issues that violate Section 504 and Title II of the ADA. She uses PowerMapper, A-Checker and quite often checks a few pages on every website through the Wave Tool on Chrome, which is a manual check.

Lipsitt said it is a 100 percent volunteer mission; all she loses is time and sleep. Each complaint takes about 30 minutes to file through the online submission system and she files three to six per day, seven days a week.

“My advocacy and activism are virtually seven days a week and have been for almost 20 years. You asked what has kept me going. I will never stop fighting for children and adults with disabilities, public education, mental health and health care. I do it because it matters and children matter,” she said.

Lipsitt said she has primarily received thanks for her efforts across the United States and has received a “relatively small amount of criticism through comments when some articles have been published.” She said she has no doubt there are some school administrators who are not thrilled with her efforts, but added “I simply do not care.”

“The content that is taken down and not made accessible may be a loss to individuals that had access, but it was never accessible to individuals who are blind, have low vision issues, dyslexia, are deaf or hard of hearing, and have fine motor impairments. Everyone is entitled to access information,” Lipsitt said.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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