I have to ask why this is still an issue that is going to court. We know that all children benefit from inclusive schooling.


Is it OK to segregate students with disabilities? 

Separate Springfield and Georgia cases race to decide

By Heather Adams | Hadams@masslive.com

In August the Department of Justice announced they were suing Georgia for “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities.” A similar lawsuit has been going on in Springfield since 2014.

On June 27, 2014, a parent of a student at the Springfield Public Day School, a school specifically for children with disabilities, filed a federal class suit against the city of Springfield and the city’s school system. The suit claimed the student was being “warehoused in a segregated Springfield school without educational opportunities or therapeutic supports.”

The case claims the separate facility is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, due to the lack of providing services in integrated settings among typically developing peers.

Superintendent of Public Schools Daniel J. Warwick called the complaint “outrageous,” according to a previous report by The Republican.

He said that the goal of the public day programs is to provide alternative pathways for students with disabilities to be successful within the public school setting.

Warwick also said the district’s public day programs are fully approved by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and have been praised by school districts throughout the state as a model of excellence.

Although, the school did run into some problems with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the same year as the lawsuit.

The 2014 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary EducationCoordinated Program Review Report claimed the students at Springfield Public Day Middle School and Springfield Public Day High School “do not have equal opportunity to participate in vocational, nonacademic and extracurricular programs” as their peers in other schools. The report also said the schools “are not located in fully accessible facilities” with the example of the high school having “only stairs to the second floor.”

Court filings offer window into life at Springfield Public Day Schools as discrimination lawsuit heads toward next hearing

Documents filed this summer include internal emails, affidavits from parents and expert testimony.

The case hasn’t been without its share of complications. The city attempted to have the case dismissed but a federal judge denied the motion. According to the Center for Public Representation Assistant Director Robert Fleischner, the next step is a hearing in late September or October to treat the case as a class action before proceeding.

The similarities between this case and the case in Georgia, though, could prove to be important.

Both cases in Springfield and Georgia claim students at the schools are being segregated in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public systems provide services in integrated settings.

Both cases talk about the schools being “inferior” and education not being the main priority.

“Academic expectations are low. Education is not the primary mission of the Public Day School, and students make little academic progress there,” the Springfield class action complaint reads.

Physical restraints were also brought up in both claims. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that in Georgia’s segregated schools, known as Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS), students were restrained nearly five times more than in all of Georgia’s other public schools combined.

In the case with Springfield Public Day Schools the complaint includes that the school focuses “on behavior control using drastic methods including dangerous physical restraints, forced isolation in padded rooms and repeated arrests and suspensions for minor offenses.”

The cases claim students in both states could be educated among their typical developing peers.

“These are children of great promise,” the complaint said. “They could be educated in neighborhood schools and given the same opportunity to progress academically and graduate that is enjoyed by their peers without a disability.”
Although, there are a few differences. The main being Georgia’s schools are a statewide program, while the case is Springfield is specific to one school district.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t other school districts in Massachusetts operating the same way. But they are not run under one roof and operate individually.

Depending on the outcome of the Springfield case, it could have a larger impact, Fleischner said.

If Springfield is found in violation of ADA requirements, it could impact how other districts in the state run their special education departments.

It could also impact the case in Georgia or vice versa, providing another example of a similar case.

“Whichever one is (decided) first will have some impact on the other, I suspect,” Fleischner said.

The outcome, though, could go beyond these two cases. Other states have similar separate schools for students with disabilities such as Missouri State Schools for the Severely Disabled and Pasadena Unified School District Focus Point Academy in Los Angeles.

Emily Suski, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who specializes in education law, told Mother Jones if Georgia is found not complying with the ADA it sets a precedent and other states and school districts will have to reexamine their approaches.

The cases are all part of a larger movement to apply ADA more heavily on schools than in the past, Jennifer Mathis, deputy legal director at Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law said.

Previously, schools focused on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which passed in 1975 and mandated by law that schools must provide a free, appropriate education in a least restrictive environment to all children.
The law is left broad, not specifying what is “appropriate” or “least restrictive,” allowing states and schools to figure out the best practices for educating children with special needs. But it did not require “inclusion,” the integration of students with special needs into the regular education classroom — something many disability advocates push for.

Dr. George Giuliani, executive director at the National Association of Special Education Teachers said during an interview with Columbia, Missouri NPR affiliateKBIA that the concept of “free appropriate public education” was the focus of the 1982 Petitioners v. Amy Rowley court case. While the school felt Amy was doing fine, her parents thought she could do even better with a sign language interpreter. But the court decided that wasn’t the expectation of the school.

“The standard is we have to provide an appropriate education not a best education,” Giuliani said.

Although the primary focus for schools has been IDEA, since 1990 they also fall under the ADA — which has clearer language and requires inclusion. And court cases like the ones in Springfield and Georgia are forcing the courts and schools to look at this requirement.

“It always takes time to raise these arguments in different contexts,” Mathis said. She continued saying she doesn’t think the schools are trying to be harmful “but that doesn’t mean it’s OK or legal.”

Mathis said some parents might feel the segregated schools can provide a service the traditional public schools can’t, but she said getting those services in integrated settings is an important part of the court case.

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Tony Paulauski
Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
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