Federal legislation, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that all children with disabilities be provided a “free appropriate public education” [FAPE] “designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”
Plaintiffs seek to force the CDE to actively fulfill its statutory obligations to ensure the provision of FAPE, rather than passively record the districts’ failures. Among other shortcomings, the Complaint alleges that California school districts are failing to: identify children with disabilities at an early age; properly assess and categorize the children’s disabilities; develop and implement individualized education programs and educate them “to the maximum extent appropriate” in the “least restrictive environment,” that is, in a general education environment with their non-disabled peers.
In one example, the Complaint alleges that “Alicia” (not her real name), a six-year-old with a form of Autism had been tied to her chair to restrain her fidgeting—a natural consequence of her disorder—rather than receiving behavioral support services. Alicia’s parents, non-English speakers, first learned of the physical restraints from the police. The school district never bothered to notify them.
“Margaret” is an eight-year-old with Retts Syndrome who has remained at home for almost four months. According to her school district, the paraprofessionals assigned to work with her have refused to do so because her challenges are different than those of others.
The Complaint also details how school districts use funds to resist parents seeking those very services. One district spent $80,000 on attorneys’ fees in an unsuccessful effort to avoid reimbursing parents for the $4,500 cost of an independent educational evaluation.
Another district had experienced a 150% increase in due process hearings over the past year. Due process hearings are costly procedures used to obtain an administrative adjudication of a child’s entitlement to educational placement and services.
The Complaint relies on the CDE’s own statistics to document California’s failure to provide FAPE. California children with disabilities remain isolated from their peers and the general education curriculum at an unreasonably high rate.
Racial and ethnic discrimination is also endemic, according to the plaintiffs. Statewide statistics show that African-American students are disproportionally categorized as having “emotional disturbances” while Latino students are disproportionally categorized as having “Mental Retardation.” The categorization of the child, according to the reported data, has significant repercussions on the educational placement and services.
Plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Rony Sagy of Sagy Law Associates in San Francisco, highlighted the need for a prompt resolution. “The stakes for these young people and their parents could not be higher. Taxpayers’ money is increasingly being spent on legal fees to fight parents, rather than to provide their children with the educational services they need and deserve.” Sagy said that Plaintiffs hope to minimize the cost of litigation by engaging the CDE in mediation, but the CDE has yet to respond to the invitation to engage in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Plaintiffs’ co-counsel, Stephen A. Rosenbaum, has dedicated much of his professional career to enforcing the provision of special educational services. He says that “the time has come to take on the system as a whole. We let another generation of children with disabilities slip through the cracks.”
The Concerned Parents Association (CPA) is a statewide association of parents of children with special needs formed to promote the education of their children and to support the efforts of local parent groups, such as Plaintiff Morgan Hill Concerned Parents Association. Linda McNulty, CPA Secretary, noted, “Parents across California face similar treatment at the hands of local school districts and the CDE. Many of the association’s beneficiaries are low income and use English as a second language. By organizing as a statewide group, we have the opportunity to address these issues on a systemic basis.”
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