ADA compliance called into question in Washington County schools

In a recent meeting, Mildred Cox addressed the Washington County School Board with concerns regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act and the district’s compliance with the requirements.

Cox raised these concerns after her grandson, Davis Cox, a junior at Chipley High School, was trapped in a bathroom for an hour and a half before anyone realized he was not in class while attending classes at Florida Panhandle Technical College.

Davis has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease which causes muscles to become weaker over time. When Davis went to the restroom with teacher acknowledgement, he was unable to leave the bathroom because he could not open the door. The maintenance staff took the closure off the door to get Davis out. 

“That a young person would be trapped in a bathroom for one and a half hours with no assistance and a door he cannot pull open, is abhorrent,†Cox said.

Because of this and other issues she saw, Cox toured the campus at Chipley High School to look into ADA compliance issues at the school and in the district.

During that tour, Cox noted there was a locked gate and asked how someone in a wheelchair would enter. The reply she said she received was they would enter through the door to the left and someone would see them and buzz them in. In reality, someone would have to come around and open the door for someone in a wheelchair. When Cox visited the following week, signs were posted instructing visitors to wave their hand over the button to be buzzed in that were not there previously. 

“There are no doors at CHS that a student in a wheelchair with muscular weakness in their arms can enter and exit,†Cox said. “Not the campus itself, not a bathroom, not a classroom.â€

Other issues noted by Cox included a key to operate the wheelchair lift in the auditorium should have been in the sound booth but was instead located in the teacher’s pocket. In order to get to the restroom the student would need access to the lift. Otherwise they would need to leave the building, regardless of the weather, and wheel up to the stage level to participate in the drama department. Cox noted the lack of an automated door at the entrance for handicapped individuals and a covered area for loading and unloading students in a wheelchair during inclement weather.

The main question posed by Cox addressed school regulations related to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the ADA 1991 Standards for Title II. According to these regulations, students with disabilities must be able to receive free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to attend school and to be able to enter and exit a door. 

“What effort is being made to make CHS and the FPTC campus accessible for all to attend class?†Cox asked.

The school district underwent an on-site compliance review in 2022, the first in more than a decade, and was cited for 50 different violations across schools in the district. FPTC received 12 citations, and CHS received 10. The majority of the issues at FPTC concern the restroom facilities that are inaccessible or do not meet the requirements for door handles or grab bars. 

Other citations include improper or lack of accessibility signage, cracks in sidewalks, and water pooling at the ramp used by handicapped individuals. CHS was cited mostly for lack of accessibility signage, but other citations included mounds of sand by sidewalks making them inaccessible to wheelchair users, broken tiles in a bathroom causing unsafe conditions for wheelchair users and accessibility to track and softball fields.

Director of Federal Programs Jiranda White says the district has a living document with all of the citations listed that the district is working on. 

“We are working on making the much needed improvements to our facilities,†White said. “We as a district want to comply and be accessible to all of our students.â€

Each citation listed in the document has a timeline for completion with each task varying on the amount of time it will take to complete.

“The signage is one that we can rectify pretty quickly,†White said. “The others, especially at FPTC, will take a little longer but we are working toward them every day.â€

The district is working on the issue of accessibility through doors.

“The resolution for the doors will be whatever the state requires,†White said. “Whether that is a button or anything else, that is what we will do.â€

According to State Statute 34 C.F.R.104.22, the district is not required to make each of its existing facilities or every part of a facility accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities in  buildings built prior to 1977. However, the district is required to correct citations on buildings constructed before and after 1977 based on the on-site compliance review.

Should the deadlines for resolution not be met, fines could be imposed on the district.

“Our job is to remove barriers and provide access to all of our students,†White said. “We want to get anything we are required to make our schools accessible. Our goal is to get things done in a timely manner.â€

White said the district will use the guidance from the audit. After her grandson’s struggles, Cox wants to ensure other students will not have the same experience. 

“I am a relentless advocate, and I will be pursuing this to resolution,†Cox said.