Lawsuit Contests Required PTA Attendance

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A Florida woman has filed a federal lawsuit after her son was booted from the school where he attended kindergarten because she had missed too many PTA meetings.

Reba Alexander, who suffers from kidney disease, missed two mandatory meetings at Pasadena Fundamental School, a public school in the Pinellas County district, because she was undergoing dialysis treatment and was too weak to attend, according to her lawyer, Lydia Castle. When Ms. Alexander missed a third meeting during her hospital stay, the school transferred her son, Gabriel, to another public school for this school year, Ms. Castle said.

Ms. Alexander claims in the suit, filed this month in U.S. District Court in Tampa, that a contract school officials required her to sign, demanding PTA attendance among other provisions, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it doesn't provide reasonable accommodations for parents or guardians with disabilities.

The federal law requires districts to have a specific policy for parents with disabilities unless the schools "can show it causes them undue burden," Ms. Castle said.

"How burdensome could it be to allow her to participate by conference phone or to review the meeting minutes?" Ms. Castle said.

Parent Involvement Vital

Pasadena Fundamental apparently is one of the most popular schools in the 105,000-student Pinellas County system. The contract, officials there say, is vital to the school's mission. The school follows a "back to basics" approach that includes rigorous homework assignments, a dress code, and active parental participation.

Parents must apply to the 485-student school in St. Petersburg; then a computer randomly selects students for openings. Ron Stone, an associate superintendent for the district, said that there is a lengthy waiting list for admission to the K-5 school. "That's why it's important to remove a student if the parent doesn't comply with the contract," he said.

But the contract does offer some flexibility. Parents may miss up to two PTA meetings and send a representative to two others.

Mr. Stone said that Ms. Alexander should have made prior arrangements when signing the contract if she knew she couldn't abide by the rules.

According to Ms. Castle, Ms. Alexander did comply with all the other requirements, including attendance at all mandatory teacher conferences.

But she said that her client knew no one who could represent her at the PTA meetings. Ms. Alexander lives with her 72-year-old mother, who cannot drive and looks after Gabriel when Ms. Alexander is sick or receiving treatments, Ms. Castle said.

Ms. Castle also argued that Ms. Alexander is not responsible for making special arrangements for her disability. "The burden is on the school board."

No Open-and-Shut Case

Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and an expert in school law, said that the school board's lack of a specific policy for disabled parents is not an "automatic violation" of the law.

"This is not an open-and-shut case," he said. "This is in that sort of gray area, and we don't have a lot of precedents."

In addition to a change in policy for disabled parents and monetary damages, Ms. Castle said that the lawsuit asks that Gabriel, now 6, be readmitted.

The boy is attending a private school, she said, but wants to return to the fundamental school.

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  • Parent Involvement in Education. A state-by-state summary of legislation and legislative efforts relating to parental involvement from the Education Commission of the States.

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