As Gov. Bill Lee fights lawsuits against parents of children with disabilities – as well as a federal civil rights probe into whether his ban on universal masking in schools discriminates against children at high risk of serious illness due to to COVID – the state’s top special education official demoted.
Theresa Nicholls served as deputy commissioner for special populations at the education ministry until last week, when she was abruptly reassigned to the ministry’s attorney general’s office.
Nicholls’ reassignment has come as a shock to disability advocates, educators and parents who work closely with her to carry out the day-to-day work of implementing federal grants and ensuring that children with disabilities receive the legally required services. Its permanent meetings were canceled on short notice. No one from the department has officially communicated his departure to stakeholders – including major recipients of federal grants, who work regularly with Nicholls – about his reassignment. The ministry, however, quickly released a new organizational chart that excludes Nicholls.
Children’s advocates describe Nicholls, who has worked in the department for eight years, as an accessible and capable leader. They say they were shocked to learn that she left the division and are concerned about the stability of their work with the state in the future. Five defenders who spoke with the Lookout did so on condition that they were not identified, as they want to continue to have a good relationship with the ministry.
Nicholls is well known in state special education and disability circles, but only played a very public role last month, when she was a witness in a federal court trial over the politics of Lee’s school mask in Shelby County.
The hearing was due to consider a preliminary injunction against Lee’s mask removal order in a lawsuit brought by three Shelby County parents of students with disabilities or with ailments that leave them immunosuppressed.
Nicholls testified to the many accommodations provided to students with disabilities since the start of the pandemic, the Commercial Appeal reported. Responding to questions from the parents’ attorneys, she also said Lee did not consult with her before issuing an executive order banning schools from enforcing universal mask warrants.
Lawyers also asked Nicholls if his job would be made easier if everyone was masked, according to the Commercial Appeal report.
“I think my job would be easier in a lot of cases,” she replied. “Of course there are a lot of things that would make my life easier.”
After her testimony, U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a preliminary injunction ending Bill Lee’s mask removal order in Shelby County. In his order, Shipman wrote:
“Without consulting his own education experts on the needs of children with disabilities and going against the public health guidelines of local and national medical and public health entities, Governor Lee took a step that violated the rights of children. children with disabilities to access public education. ”
Nicholls also testified in a similar case brought by relatives in Knox County. But she did not appear at a hearing in another case challenging the governor’s order in Williamson County. This hearing took place on Tuesday, after Nicholls’ reassignment.
A spokesperson for the Education Department did not respond to questions emailed about the reasons for Nicholl’s job change or other staff changes.
Nicholls declined to comment.
Nicholls will be replaced by Jennifer Jordan, according to an email from a Tennessee school principal describing the changes achieved by the Lookout.
Jordan was previously the senior director of training and response in the department. The email highlighted other changes: The Early Years Transition Team, which focuses on the needs of young children with disabilities, will be removed entirely from the Department of Education – an important transition that also has not been announced. . This team will now be housed within the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
The email says Nicholls’ new role will be to serve students with disabilities as a program expert on the Disability Education Act, a law that guides special education.