N.Y.C. Parents of Special Needs Students File Class Action Suit Over Special Education Court Delays

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Disabled city students who file legal complaints over their treatment at school wait an average of nine months for a resolution, despite a federal legal wait-time limit of 75 days, a new class action lawsuit alleges.

The special education courts are designed to protect the legal rights of those children, but the city’s system is so overburdened that vulnerable students wait months or years for help getting critical support, according to the legal complaint.

“This problem has been getting worse for years and years and years,” said Danielle Tarantolo, a lawyer at New York Legal Assistance Group, which represents five families in the suit filed Friday in Manhattan federal court—the first class action to take on the delays, Tarantolo said, adding: “The system remains entirely broken."

The strains reflect the ballooning number of legal complaints against the city’s Education Department for failing to accommodate children’s special ed needs. During the 2017-18 school year, for example, there were 7,000 such complaints—more than California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas combined, according to an 2019 analysis commissioned by the state education department.

Parents can file legal grievances when a school refuses to evaluate a child for a learning disability, offers inadequate support, or declines to recommend a school better suited to the child’s needs.

But the city has only 69 special education judges to handle the load. As a result, 10,000 legal cases remain open, and it takes an average of 259 days for a complaint to wind its way through the legal system, a violation of the 75-day federal limit, the suit alleges.

“The law is extremely clear about how long an educational agency has to do these hearings, and it’s a deliberately very short time line,” said Tarantolo. “These are children and this is their education. They need to get what they need now,” she said.

Low-income families are hit especially hard since they can’t front the money for therapy, tutoring, or tuition at private schools while their cases are in limbo, advocates said.

Critics say both the state and city bear responsibility. State officials are in charge of recruiting and hiring the judges, but haven’t raised the maximum hourly pay rate of $100 since 2001, according to the external review, a pittance of what top special education lawyers make.

City officials, meanwhile, decided to pay judges by task rather than time worked, which often works out to a lower pay rate than elsewhere in the state, according to the analysis. State officials said the practice also makes it harder to find judges willing to work in the city.

The city Education Department released a new pay policy for judges last Friday, and an agency spokesperson said it’s expected pay rates will rise as a result, though the new plan also reduces payments for some jobs.

“We are working closely with the State to make this process better for families including updating and expediting the pay policy for impartial hearing officers, adding staff to process cases faster, completing more settlements, and eliminating case processing backlogs. We recognize we have more work to do to serve every family quickly and thoroughly but we are glad we have made so much progress over the past year and a half," said city Education Department spokeswoman Danielle Filson.

The state education department did not respond to requests for comment.

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