Disability complaint filed against Hillsborough schools listen10/01/08 Seán Kinane
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Hillsborough County schools are violating federal requirements by not providing adequate services to students with disabilities, according to a coalition of advocacy groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities and the NAACP held a press conference in downtown Tampa this morning to announce they have filed a class-action administrative complaint against the Hillsborough County School system alleging systemic violations of a federal law.
The complaint was filed Wednesday with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) on behalf of six Hillsborough County public school students who were identified only by their initials.
Marlene Sallo, an attorney with the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, said the children range from sixth- to 12th-grade.
“The school system has failed to provide the special services these children need to succeed even though these services are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education and Improvement Act, otherwise known as IDEA. These children have also been subjected to repeated disciplinary measures that remove them from the classroom. And the fact is, children cannot succeed unless they are able to stay in the classroom. But in Hillsborough County, children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to lose at least 10 days of school due to suspension or expulsion in comparison to students without disabilities.”
The class-action complaint also includes “all students of the Hillsborough County public school system” who have emotional/behavioral disabilities and are subjected to repeated disciplinary removals from school of more than 10 days. Because it is not a criminal suit, the complaint will be investigated by FDOE, which could order corrective actions, Sallo said.
“Rather than receiving the counseling and psychological and social services these children need and are entitled to under federal law, they are being neglected and subjected to harsh and sometimes illegal discipline that isolates them and takes them out of the classroom. These students are literally being pushed out of school by what is happening in one of the largest school districts in the nation.”
Sallo said only 39 percent of children with disabilities graduated from Hillsborough County public schools in 2005-06, compared with a 75 percent graduation rate for all students. One of the six students named in the complaint is a 10th-grader with disabilities and behavioral problems who functions at a first-grade level in math and reading, according to Sallo.
“Although she, the student was determined to be eligible for special education services in 1998, it was eight years before the school district included any social work, psychological, or counseling services as part of her education. And finally, anger management counseling was provided to the student, but the school never adjusted this counseling, despite repeated suspensions, behavioral incidents, and even arrests during a span of two years. And this is just one example of the egregious violations that have occurred.”
In 2006, the Advancement Project and the NAACP released a study called Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida. It included results from five public meetings throughout the state, including in St. Petersburg, covering the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts that found a “statewide problem” of schools “looking to the legal system to handle even the most minor transgressions.”
Pat Spencer is the Area IX Director for the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.
“Do we want children to get their high school diplomas and be productive adults? Or do we want to kick them out and put them behind bars so they can later graduate into adult prisons? Because that’s what happens when we let them fall between the cracks. Children with disabilities are by far the ones most likely to end up behind bars.”
“Seventy percent of the youth in Florida’s juvenile justice system have at least one mental health disorder,” according to Spencer.
“By failing to meet the needs of such students and by adopting harsh zero tolerance policies that push them out of school for minor misconduct, the Hillsborough school district is helping feed Florida’s school to prison pipeline. In fact, Hillsborough leads the state in the number of children it sends to the justice system: almost 1,900 students in the 2006-2007 school year. That’s a shocking number.”
Spencer said discipline should be handled within the school rather than calling law enforcement. Hillsborough schools must stop setting those students up for prison.
Brandi Davis, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees. Davis said out of the 91,000 children processed each year by Florida’s juvenile justice system, 23,000 are sent directly from the schools.
“This is an outrageous number. As Gov. Charlie Crist's blueprint commission report pointed out in January, this is partly because schools have relied too heavily on practices like suspension, expulsion and arrest to deal with discipline. Florida also has the lowest graduation rate for African-Americans; it’s just 31 percent, and that is not acceptable. The complaint we filed today deals specifically with the neglect of children with disabilities. But it is our hope that these reforms will help all children in the school system.”
Davis said that positive reforms have come from the two other states where similar complaints were filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dropout rates and school climates improved in Louisiana and Mississippi, according to Davis.
A similar press conference was also held Wednesday in Palm Beach County to announce that an administrative complaint against that county’s school board was also filed with the FDOE. Spencer said of all the school districts in Florida, Hillsborough and Palm Beach Counties had the most cases where students with emotional or behavioral disabilities experienced disciplinary removals from class of more than 10 days.
Sallo said if their administrative complaint is acted upon, she expects to see “students remaining in the classroom rather than being suspended or sent home on ‘cool off periods.’ We’re trying to reduce the amount of out-of-school days for students with disabilities, out of school days that have been a result of their behaviors within the classroom. So if we can allow them to modify whatever behaviors are causing them to be suspended, whether in school or out of school, then that will provide that student with the ability to remain in the classroom and receive the services that are federally mandated.”
If that happens, those students would be able to advance academically, Sallo said.
Steve Hegarty, spokesman for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said the school district has been aware of their high number of referrals to law enforcement for some time. The school district shares the same goals as the advocacy groups and are working on programs to keep kids out of the criminal justice system and keep them in school, Hegarty said.
“We actually have a very good record when there are administrative complaints. If a parent disagrees with something, they have the right to make a complaint to the Florida Department of Education. We provide information to the DOE, we have them look over our shoulder and see what we’re doing, we actually have a very good record in that regard. In this case, they’re going to look at six cases, if they find some problems we’re going to fix them. We’re going to look at the cases ourselves, I’m sure the schools are aware of them. But that’s how we’re going to proceed.”
Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF
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