Law & Courts

Changing Special Education by Lawsuit

By Nirvi Shah — May 06, 2011 2 min read
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While it’s common in the land of lawsuits for one party to ask the judge to dismiss a case and for that request to be denied, I thought it was worth noting that last week, a judge refused to dismiss a case brought against the Louisiana Department of Education, among other defendants, that claims widespread problems with special education in the state.

The federal suit, filed in October, says students with disabilities have been either completely denied enrollment on the basis of their disability, or forced to attend schools unwilling or unable to meet their educational needs.

The real target of the lawsuit is public schools in New Orleans, which are split among a number of school districts. But the largest is the Louisiana Recovery School District, created in 2003, and run by the state. Because Louisiana has power over public schools in the city, the suit says Louisiana hasn’t done enough to make New Orleans serve kids with disabilities. In addition, the suit claims the district hasn’t done enough to find and evaluate students with disabilities.

I don’t know what will happen with this case, but I learned recently that the special education programs and services in many large districts (and presumably some of all sizes) are on the radar of the federal government, at least in part because of lawsuits. Similar to federal desegregation orders, districts are monitored until they are found to be complying with special education laws.

I recently learned more about the situation in Los Angeles, which was assigned a monitor based on a 1996 lawsuit. A report released just this week found that at the district’s 169 magnet schools some policies may violate state and federal special education laws. Although magnet students are initially chosen by lottery, the students are then screened before they can actually attend. Students with disabilities who have been served in separate classrooms or who would spend less than half the day in the magnet program are found ineligible to participate. The study said there were many cases where magnet schools had gone to great lengths to accommodate students with disabilities, but “many of the staff appeared to also be indoctrinated by the District’s policies and procedures to exclude and restrict [students with disabilities] from participating in their programs.”

Which other districts are under such federal monitoring? While a lawsuit prompted the reports that highlight issues with serving students with special needs, it may not be the quickest route to change. But are there other options?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.