03/24/2009

Complaint: Kentucky School District Neglects Children with Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities in Kentucky's second-largest school district have been subjected to harsh discipline but have been routinely denied the services they need to succeed in school, according to a complaint supported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Feb. 23 complaint against the Fayette County school district, describes a school system where officials were quick to suspend students with disabilities or relegate them to alternative schools.

The Children's Law Center in Lexington filed the complaint with the Kentucky Department of Education on behalf of 12 students with disabilities.

The complaint is part of the SPLC's School to Prison Reform Project, a national campaign to stop the flow of children from schools into the juvenile justice system. Children with disabilities and emotional disturbances are at a high risk of dropping out or being sent into detention for even minor offenses.

"The practices in this district seem to streamline the process for sending students along the 'school-to-prison pipeline' rather than ensuring their education success," said Kim Brooks Tandy, executive director of the Children's Law Center. "The system needs to be overhauled, and we look forward to an investigation by the Kentucky Department of Education."

Several of the students named in the complaint who attend Martin Luther King Academy for Excellence as an alternative school have spent years in this program with little hope of returning to regular school.

"Child Eight," as described in the complaint, is one example.

Her difficulties began in the sixth grade when she developed behavioral problems. Her grandmother believed the behavior stemmed from learning difficulties. She asked school officials to provide a plan that would help Child Eight when she made the transition to high school.

The school never provided the help, according to the child's grandmother. The child got into two fights shortly after beginning high school and was transferred to the alternative school.

Child Eight, now 18, has spent her last three years in the ninth grade. She never received any special education services at the school. She was finally told she could no longer attend school and needed to withdraw.

Another student, "Child Four," as listed in the complaint, has spent more than two years at the alternative school. She says physical confrontation between the staff and students are common, and that staff members often provoke students to get them into trouble.

She said that in most of her classes, she is given one worksheet to work on each day and that she never has homework. Nonetheless, she is failing all of her classes. None of the students, she said, has the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities or clubs.

Neither of these students has been considered for an evaluation to determine if their school-related problems may be related to a disability.

"Fayette County is just another example of the most vulnerable schoolchildren — those most likely to drop out — not getting the support they need in school, the support that is required under federal law," said Ron Lospennato, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's School to Prison Reform Project. "These students need a helping hand in the classroom, but instead many of them are being pushed into the juvenile justice system."

The complaint calls for the appointment of an expert to evaluate discipline policies and how the district identifies, evaluates and plans for the education of students with disabilities. It also asks that the Kentucky Department of Education compel the school system to provide each of the students named in the complaint with an evaluation, an education plan and compensatory education to make up for lost services.

"We hope the district will see this as an opportunity to provide a more positive educational environment for its students with disabilities," Tandy said. "By improving disciplinary policies and creating positive behavioral supports, we believe the district will also see an increase in academic achievement among these students."