Public education in post-Katrina New Orleans held the promise of providing superior educational opportunities to New Orleans children. Unfortunately, that promise is not equally available to all students. Despite the fact that federal law requires publicly funded schools to educate students who may have disabilities, many New Orleans schools are closing their doors to these students. The results are perverse: students with the greatest needs are denied the rich educational opportunities that school reform was intended to provide.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education. Federal law also protects students with disabilities from being punished and removed from school for behaviors that are manifestations of their disabilities.

Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.

According to state data, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) has systemically failed to fulfill these obligations to New Orleans public school students with disabilities. The results are abysmal.

  • The graduation rate for RSD students with disabilities is less than half of the overall graduation rate.15
  • Only 6.8% of RSD students with disabilities exit with a high school diploma, while across the state, the average is 19.4%.16
  • In the 2008-09 school year, RSD schools suspended nearly 30% of all students with disabilities — a rate that is 63% higher than the state average.17
  • During the 2007-08 school year, 94.6% of eighth grade RSD students with disabilities failed the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) exam. For the same year, 78.3% of all eighth grade charter school students with disabilities failed the LEAP.18
  • On average, school districts throughout Louisiana have identified 12.2% of their students as eligible for special education services. New Orleans Public Schools have identified only 8% of their students as eligible for special education services. Comparable school districts throughout the country identify almost twice as many students with disabilities.19

The families profiled here put a face to the suffering behind this data. They tell the stories of students who just want to learn and parents who just want to do right by their children. Instead, these families are struggling day in and day out to access the most basic components of an education.

Danna Johnson, Mother of a child in the New Orleans Charter Schools:

After Katrina, I was excited about the school reform. I saw a flier for a new charter school and felt hopeful since it said they would really help the children and meet their academic needs. My daughter started at a charter in the 7th grade. I gave them a copy of her [individualized education plan] and a letter of concern about her academic problems. I kept asking for an evaluation. I never received a response. She was struggling in school and started acting out and had a lot of behavior problems.

Then they said they would help her in 8th grade but they kept delaying again for an entire year. They never helped her with academics and her behavior kept getting worse. After two full school years, they didn’t give her what she needed and she kept falling further behind. Now she’s in 8th grade for the second time.

My daughter has been really down. This is a rough year for her, with peers that are so much younger than her in the elementary school setting. She’s 16 now in the 8th grade. The first day of school she just cried. She feels stupid and wants to give up and drop out. My child is just one example of how so many children are falling so far behind.

Kelly Fischer, Mother of a child with special needs:

My 8-year-old son is completely blind, has autism and is developmentally delayed. The Recovery School District told us about specific schools that would be appropriate for our son but when we tried to enroll him, they were already full.

The first school he attended had no services, materials or support staff to help him. He is in the 3rd grade and I had to attend school with him every day for the entire day for several weeks. The teacher just taught the regular curriculum. When a worksheet was handed out to the class, they would give one to my son, too, even though he’s completely blind. I found it frustrating transitioning into this school system; our previous school provided our son with services and appropriate materials. Here he has had to wait months to receive books on tape so he can learn what the other 3rd grade kids learn, but he has to wait so long he’s always behind.

I’ve gone to eight different charter schools. Of those schools, five said they would take my application but could not accommodate my son with disabilities. Another said they would work with him but were stretched pretty thin.

Most charters said they don’t have the staffing, training or materials. One woman literally said, “I don’t think we’re hurting kids with special needs but I know we’re not helping them. You don’t want your son to go here.” … Only one charter school said it had a good program and that they’d be able to accommodate my son. But it’s a selective application process and he might not be accepted and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones*, Parents of a 17-year-old child in a New Orleans Charter School:

From what I could see, the school didn’t understand that our son was special — that he had autism. One of the things the school principal made known to us was they were going to treat him just like a regular kid. They were not going to treat him like a special education student. They said they would call the police on our son for anything he does wrong. And they actually did call. And, it just went downhill after that.

I explained: “My son’s special, there’s no sense in suspending him.” You see, they were quick to put my child out of the school. They’re quick to put anyone who’s a special student out. This will never solve nothing. …

One day my son came home from school and said, “Dad, my back is hurting.” And I said, “Son, well, why is your back hurting?” He said the security guard threw him on the ground and put his foot in his chest. This should have been brought to my attention.

After all of this has gone on, we’re very reluctant to let him stay in school. He’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t want to stay and we don’t want him to be there, so we’ll just let him transition out and get him into something else, into a vocation. Because it’s really just been one hard year dealing with these people. Dealing with all of them, and all of this stuff we have gone through. They’ve broken us down.

*Not their real name

15 Louisiana Department of Education, Special Education Performance Profile (2008-09), available at eia/2115.html

16 Louisiana Department of Education, Special Education Performance Profile (2008-09), available at eia/2115.html

17 Louisiana Department of Education, Special Education Performance Profile (2008-09), available at eia/2115.html

18 Louisiana Department of Education, Standards, Assessments, and Accountability (2008-09), available at www.doe.state.

19 Louisiana Department of Education, Special Education Performance Profile (2008-09), available at eia/2115.html