Elephant in the Room: Who Is Worthy of an Education?

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

kidsPop quiz: who should decide which children deserve access to special education assistance?

  1. A) Parents
  2. B) Teachers
  3. C) Medical professionals
  4. D) Process improvement experts

If you are in charge of the country’s third largest school district you opt for process improvement experts who have no experience in special education or the unique needs of Chicago Public School students. Recently, a WBEZ investigation revealed how Chicago Public Schools underwent a secretive process to overhaul their procedures on how students may access special education services. CPS, through its process improvement auditors, created a “Procedural Manual” aiming to equally distribute services with more standardization. However, the new procedures ultimately resulted in CPS providing less financial support for all schools along with higher burdens placed on parents who must advocate and fight for their children’s services. According to the WBEZ report, the auditors focused less on connecting students with needed services and more on identifying ways to reduce costs by cutting services the auditors deemed unnecessary. Worse yet, CPS did not inform most parents of the manual’s existence leaving them in the dark as to why their children’s essential services were denied. CPS students are primarily students of color, living in poverty. It’s common for poor minorities to be viewed with suspicion when they seek help, yet one would think that small children with disabilities would be excluded from this type of distrust. Sadly, they are not. CPS’ new process resulted in an increase of hurdles, requirements, and delays in desperately needed services. Students with disabilities and their families, already marginalized, suffered the brunt of this harmful new policy.

For those of us that practice in special education law the result is no surprise. Students of color, particularly black students, are frequently left out of the Special Ed equation. They are less likely to be referred to programs; less likely to be given modifications and accommodations; and schools with high populations of minority students are less likely to receive the funding necessary to provide for those students with special needs. The lack of access to appropriate special education services leads to more problems. For example, students with unidentified and unmet social-emotional needs are commonly subjected to discriminatory school disciplinary actions and exclusions. Others students simply fall behind academically and are unable to fully participate in their education.

LAF has been at the forefront of this issue for years. In 2013, we sued CPS for discriminating against children with disabilities, seeking a court order to stop one of the 49 school closures that occurred that year. Those closures resulted in a disparate impact on students with disabilities, because the formula that CPS used to select schools for closure did not include a reasonable accommodation for schools that served large populations of students with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Now students with disabilities face a new barrier to appropriate services.  Last school year, when CPS created the Procedural Manual, CPS parents began to call us to help their children, who suddenly were going without their much needed resources. We advocated for dozens of individual clients who were denied special education services due to the new goals set forth by this manual.  We also began fighting for transparency and systemic change. We collaborated with other local agencies including Access Living, Legal Council for Health Justice, Equip for Equality, and the Children’s Law Group. After months of advocacy, CPS amended their manual with some improvement. However, there is still a long fight ahead to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable youth are granted access to programs and assistance they so desperately need. LAF intends to continue our fight both for our individual clients and for larger systemic change — so that all CPS students with disabilities are given the services they are entitled to under the law.

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